This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Proverbs 31.10-31, Psalm 1, James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a, Mark 9.30-37). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, OK. Our conversation covers a range of topics including good books, pronouns in Proverbs, misapplied texts, theological thinking, healthy happiness, the realm of wisdom, the possibility of peace, secret applications, the depths of dopamine, and the connection between humility and humiliation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: An Understanding Mind
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Haley Husband about the readings for the 8th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 7.1-14a, Psalm 89.20-37, Ephesians 2.11-22, Mark 6.30-34, 53-56). Our conversation covers a range of topics including sabbath scriptures, God’s presence, corporate worship, confronting control, the faith that moves, profound peace, crazy covenants, Taize tales, Jesus’ friends, and compassion. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Temptation of Domestication
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Years ago there was a young man, still early in his ministry, who was appointed to serve a new church.
At least, it was new to him.
He had gone to the right seminary, and studied all the right books, and prayed all the right prayers, and served in the right ways, and was excited about this next step in the adventure that is faith.
So with eager anticipation, he packed his bags and got in the car to go check out John Wesley UMC somewhere in Georgia.
This preacher was so excited, in fact, that when he arrived in town, before he unpacked his bags, he drove to the church. He typed the requisite address and admired the different varieties of trees planted perfectly along the road, but when came to his destination, he saw no church.
So he turned around, drove down the road once more and, again, no church to be found.
Finally, he got out of the car, and walked along the sidewalk for a closer inspection until he eventually found the church and he discovered why he missed it so many times: there was one of the oldest and most decrepit looking trees he had ever seen stretching all over the grounds with roots exposed and the church sign, plus the majority of the building, were hidden behind the tree’s long branches.
The preacher stood awkwardly on the front lawn of the church taking in the sight of the godforsaken tree, and decided he was going to do something about it.
So he drove back to his house, found the box containing his chainsaw, and then he set out to cut the tree down. He made short work of it, moving methodically from branch to branch (he was a Methodist after all) until, before long, he took a step back to admire his work.
The sign and the building were now completely visible from the road and he thought, rather proudly, that maybe just a few extra people would be in church on Sunday morning.
A few days later, as the pastor sat down to continue chipping away at his first sermon for the church, he received a call from his District Superintendent: “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking yet,” the DS said, “because you’re being reappointed.”
You see, the church was named John Wesley UMC for a reason.
John Wesley himself had stood on the roots of that tree nearly 300 hundred years ago and preached to that community. Afterward, the gathered people decided to build a church right next to the tree in honor of the man who started a revolution of the heart, and that young pastor chopped it down.
Stories are remarkably important. Put another way: We are the stories we tell.
They contain and convey just about everything regarding who we were, who we are, and who we can be. Stories held by and within a community help to shape the ways we interact with one another, and how we obtain the collective memories of the past. We tell stories to make people laugh, to teach lessons, and to share what it ultimately means to be human.
Today we live in a time of competing narratives in which every television show, every streaming service, every website, and every social media platform are vying for our allegiance and our attention. We are constantly bombarded, whether we like it or not, with information that attempts to tell us who we really are, what we really need, and where we are really going.
We live in a time in which more people recognize the golden arches of McDonald’s than they do the cross of Jesus Christ. We live in a time in which people spend more time debating where they see the best view of fireworks, or what’s really going on in Loki, or which politician is finally going to set things right than they will consider the children in their community who have nothing to eat. We live in a time in which plenty of us would rather store up all of our treasures on earth without thinking at all about how every gift first comes from the Lord.
Right now, the world is telling us what is important and it’s not easy to discern between the voice of the world, and the voice of God.
But listen to St. Paul: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Do not listen to the powers and principalities that try to define you. Do not diminish God’s ability to radically transform your life and the world around you. Open your eyes to the beauty of the strange new world made possible by Jesus Christ and him crucified.
Whenever people like us gather like this we are bound together in loyalty to a story that once was not our story. But, through God’s wonderful and confounding actions in the world, that story is now our story. It is a story of cross and resurrection, of the first being last and the last being first, of undeserving people being forgiven.
That story will always but us at odds with the world.
And, according to the ways of the world, the church is between a rock and a hard place. People are no longer regularly attending worship and that started long before a pandemic kept us in our houses on Sunday mornings. Christianity has lost its status in the public arena, we are becoming frighteningly illiterate (biblically speaking), and young people are almost nowhere to be seen when it comes to the body of Christ.
Did you know that the average age of a United Methodist is 58?
That means I still have 25 years to go before I’m average!
Did you know that the average person in a United Methodist Church invites someone to worship once every 38 years?
The world will tell us that the church is dead, that we have to do whatever we can, however we can, to get people in our building, that we need to cut down every tree (real or otherwise) that is blocking the church from the street, that we need to abandon the past in order to embrace the future because the church is dead.
Thanks be to God then, that we worship the Lord who works in the business of resurrection, of making a way where there is now way, of impossible possibility.
We don’t have to conform to the ways of the world, but instead we get to be transformed by the renewing of our minds!
While others might shrink away or wail in fear regarding the statistics I just mentioned, imagine what would happen if we embraced them and saw them as an opportunity for transformation? How would the church change if we took seriously the radical nature of God’s grace? What would happen if we embraced the trees and traditions of the church to reclaim the story that has already changed the world?
We are the stories we tell.
Here’s part of mine:
I am a cradle Methodist – I was baptized when I was 19 days old at Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria VA, where I was raised and confirmed. I ran the sound system for worship as a tweenager, played for two of our worship bands, and spent even more time at the church because it was where my boy scout troop met every week. As a teenager one of my dearest friends died tragically in a car accident and I found myself ministering to friends and family using words that were not my own, but words that had been habituated into my life because of the church and the Spirit.
I began feeling like this might be what God was calling me to do with my life and when I told the senior pastor at my church his response was, “You wanna preach in a few weeks?”
I went to JMU to study religion, I went to Duke for my Masters in Divinity, met my now wife Lindsey while I was in North Carolina and we have a remarkable 5 year old named Elijah Wolf.
My first appointment was to St. John’s UMC in Staunton, my last appointment was to Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge.
I love the church, I always have and I always will. For me, the church is the last vestige of a place where people willfully gather with people they have nothing else in common with save for the fact that Jesus has called them his friends.
I also love the church because I believe it is the better place God has made in the world. When we pray, when we break bread, when we baptize, we are all getting foretastes of the Supper of the Lamb that goes on and on forever.
Here’s what I know of your story:
I know that the church has been a beacon of the Gospel in Roanoke for 100 years. I know that you care deeply about the Word, about worship, and about mission. I know that you pride yourselves on your hospitality, something my family and I have been the beneficiaries of over the last few weeks. I know that you believe in the work of the Kingdom and are ready for the next 100 years.
And now God has seen fit to string and knit our stories together.
Being a Christian is all about being brought into another story, a different telling of where we have come from and where we are going, a story that we call the Gospel – The Good News.
And the stories from the strange new world of the Bible really do shape us – they speak greater truths than simple facts and statistics, they tell us who we are and, more importantly, whose we are. That’s why Jesus never really simply explains anything to anyone, but instead is forever going on and on telling stories, stories we call parables.
At the heart of the church is a willingness to share and to learn the art of story-telling. We learn one another’s stories by gathering for worship, or studying God’s Word, or serving the local and global community. We tell stories and receive stories so that we can cherish the roots of our foundations while, at the same time, looking to the future because God makes all things new.
The story of Raleigh Court United Methodist Church is entering into a new chapter. God is stirring things up in Roanoke. God is bombarding us with the grace that we don’t deserve but we surely need. And God is doing this not because there is a new pastor in town, and God is doing this not because the church is looking forward to the next hundred years – God is doing this simply because that’s who God is.
All of this, the church, the community of faith, grace, it’s all one remarkable gift. It’s the gift of a new past, in which the mistakes we’ve made are healed and the damage we’ve done is redeemed. We call it forgiveness. In the church and in the kingdom of God we are more than what we have failed to do, we are what God has done for us.
But it is all also a gift of a new future, in which the fear of punishment is annihilated and the terror of nothingness is obliterated – we’ve been promised resurrection.
The Church is a new past, present, and future – it is a way of life made possible by Jesus in anticipation of God doing what God does best.
The world might tell us that the church is in a difficult place. But I look out from this pulpit to all of you gathered here in person, and to all of you gathered online, and I’m not worried about what the world has to say. I’m not worried about anything because my hope isn’t in me or even in any of you, my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness – I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name!
Christ is the solid rock upon which this church stands; all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand. Amen.
Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me, O Lord God of hosts; do not let those who seek you be dishonored because of me, O God of Israel. It is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that shame has covered my face. I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children. It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
It was only a few days after the ordeal at the wedding. They had slept off the hangovers, returned to life as normal, but they couldn’t help but feel as if nothing would ever be normal again.
They were guests at the wedding, one of those affairs where they knew someone who knew someone. It didn’t matter, then, that they were sat at the reject table. They knew how to have a good time and how to make the most of the least.
At least they did, until the wine ran out.
If you’ve ever had the misfortune of being at a wedding party that ran out of booze you’ll have some idea how the tension in the room percolated straight to the surface.
So they sat there, minding their own business, wondering how long they’d have to stay before it was appropriate for them to duck out the side door to see what else Cana had to offer. But then they heard their teacher arguing with his mother.
The discomfort of a dry wedding is one thing, but having to listening to an adult son fight with his mother? That’s another thing entirely.
They tried not to eavesdrop, but it was loud enough for most of the guests to hear. And then, all of the sudden, their guy disappeared into the basement.
Within 15 minutes the wedding host announced that a miracle had occurred, and they now had enough wine to last them through the night and into the next day. And who were they to turn down an invitation like that from their host?
And so it was, a few days later, on the other side of all the pinot noir and all the partying, they found themselves in Jerusalem.
It was Passover, and all the Jews were making their way to the holy city including the fumbling crew who were still regaling one another with stories about what happened at the wedding.
They arrived at the temple and took in the scene before them. There were groups of people in every direction engaged in the economics of temple worship – some were selling cattle, sheep, and doves, while other exchanged the different currencies to make the system as simple as possible.
It had gone like this for some time.
But then Jesus disappeared again. Though this time he didn’t retreat into a dimly lit basement to turn water into wine, this time he marched straight toward the closest table, grabbed it by the corner, and flipped it high into the air. Coins went flying in every direction as jaws hit the dusty ground.
But he wasn’t done yet. Next he grabbed a leather whip and started chasing after everyone within distance, all while shouting insults about how they ruined his Father’s house.
He ragtag crew of would-be followers stood off to the side and let Jesus do his Jesus thing and they whispered among themselves:
“Is this really such a good idea?”
“If he keeps this up, he’s going to get himself killed.”
And then one of them, maybe Peter, said, “‘Zeal for you house will consume me’ isn’t that what the Psalm says?”
And they all nodded in agreement.
Just then a group of Jews shouted at the mad men with the whip in his hands, “What sign can you show for doing all of this?”
Jesus said, “I’m going to tear this Temple down and in three days raise it up!”
But it made no sense to the crowds that day, and neither did it register with his disciples. Only after he had lived, died, and rose again did they realize that he was talking about himself as the Temple of the Lord.
According to John’s Gospel, this moment by the temple not only kicks off Jesus’ ministry, but it’s also the event that puts a target on his back until he’s nailed to the cross. In one moment of physical and audible proclamation he put the religious elite in their place and shook things up.
Zeal for they house has consumed me.
The New Testament is filled with references to the Old Testament – both explicitly and implicitly. From biblical characters literally quoting from one of the prophets, to simple allusions that run back and forth, to people saying more than they know with the words they use – the two testaments are inextricably tied up with one another.
Of all the Old Testament books, the prophet Isaiah and the Psalms are quoted the most in the New Testament. In fact, in my line of work, people often refer to Isaiah as the fifth gospel because it show up so much in the other four.
But there is just something special about the way the Psalms show up in the Gospel stories.
Notably, Jesus, as a good rabbinic jew, would’ve had the whole psalter memorized and the words of Psalms are used by Jesus to refer to himself, and by others to make sense of what they experienced in Jesus.
Put simply – the psalms are the prayer book of Jesus Christ int he truest sense of the world – Jesus prayed the psalter and now it has become his prayer for for all time.
So when Jesus shows up in the Temple, starts flipping tables and chasing people with the whip, his followers immediately process the scene through one of the Psalms: “zeal for your house has consumed me.”
Contrary to how Jesus is often portrayed with his weak and quiet and reserved demeanor, whether its in sermons or Sunday school classes or even in movies, home boy was quite zealous. That is, he was on fire for things not yet seen.
In our text today he has a temple tantrum, flipping over tables and calling out the powers and principalities all as a commentary against what the faith of God’s people had become.
Regularly throughout his earthly ministry Jesus spent time among the movers and shakers and called them out for taking advantage of the last, least, lost, little, and dead.
Time and time again Jesus walked straight into complicated and even dangerous situations to reveal the confounding nature of grace and faith from meeting Mary Magdalene shortly before her being stoned to death to stopping to talk with the woman at the well.
Jesus was nothing if not zealous.
So much so that, on one notable occasion, his family thought he was completely bonkers and tried to stop him from continuing on the path that inevitably led to his cross.
Or, as the psalmist puts it, I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children. It is zeal for your house that has consumed me!
But they didn’t stop him. You see, nothing could stop Jesus from doing when he did – he was consumed with zeal for his Father’s house.
Jesus sees possibilities where we, too often, see failure.
Jesus believes in those who have quit believing in themselves.
Jesus makes a way where there is no way.
That’s exactly who Jesus is!
And, lest we ever forgets, God is at least as nice as Jesus which also means that God is at least as zealous as Jesus.
Because Jesus, as Paul reminds us, is the fullness of God revealed.
God is not merely sitting idly by watching the world spin down the toilet – God is showing up in places, flipping the tables of complacent, and is probing us to wonder and the ways things are so that we might move to where things can be.
Taking at step back from the scene in the temple, with the tables overturned and the money-lenders cowering in the corner, it’s not hard to imagine the headline in the next issue of the Jerusalem Times: Jesus – The Disturber of the Peace
There have always been disruptors of the peace, those zealots who shake up the status quo.
And yet, the peace disturbed by Jesus that day, and still disturbs today, was no real peace. The weak and the marginalized were getting abused forced into economic hardships all while God’s blessing were being construed as something to be purchased or earned.
And then God in Christ shows up to remind us there is no real transformation without disruption. Faithful following is only every possible because of disruption and dislocation – otherwise we are doomed to remain exactly as we are.
Or, as others have put it, we never move unless someone steps on our toes.
And, for some of us, that doesn’t sound too bad. Some of us would do quite well is things remained exactly as they are. But God is in the business of making something from nothing, of taking us from here to over there, of deliverance.
We might reject transformation and disruption, we might cling with all of our strength to the status quo, we might not be comfortable with Jesus’ zealous side, but none of us could ever rejoice in the knowledge of salvation were it not for Jesus’ disruption of the way things were that eventually led to his crucifixion and resurrection.
Change, real change, good change, is never painless. It’s why we put crosses in our sanctuaries, an ever present remind of what happened should any of us start asking all of the right questions.
We have a method for dealing with disturbers of the peace.
And yet, it only takes a minor gander of the great stories of history to be reminded that the most important shifts from one thing to another have always come because of disruption.
We can point to the real change makers of the world, those who refused to accept things as they were, but Jesus, whether we like it or not, is the most striking example of disruption, dislocation, and painful challenge to our status quo. Ever since he showed up we’ve never really be able to return to normal because God in Christ is marching on, all while bringing us along for the ride.
“Zeal for your house will consume me,” the psalmist writes and the disciples apply to Jesus. And they were right – The zeal Jesus had for a new day did consume him. So much so that we killed him for it.
But even the grave couldn’t stop our disturber of the peace. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Lauren Lobenhofer about the readings for the Second Sunday of Advent [B] (Isaiah 40.1-11, Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3.8-15a, Mark 1.1-8). Lauren serves as the senior pastor at Cave Spring UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including beginning again, Lauren Winner, comforting in chaos, divine reversal, unpacking peace, worship at war, Dr. Who, slowing down, divine grammar, and embodying Advent. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Wibbly-Wobbly Timey-Wimey
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sara Keeling about the readings for the 22nd Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Joshua 3.7-17, Psalm 107.1-7, 1 Thessalonians 2.9-13, Matthew 23.1-12). Sara serves as the lead pastor at Good Shepherd UMC in Dale City, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including The Overstory, connected characters, divine deliverance, All Saints all the time, the God who gathers, theological wandering, rules and regulations, and sitting at the reject table. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Preaching Isn’t Public Speaking
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
A young man was singular in his focus – He wanted nothing more than to become a fighter pilot in the Air Force. He woke up every morning for years to exercise, he maintained a perfect Grade Point Average, and he wrote letters to his political representatives asking for their endorsements for the Air Force Academy.
And, all was well until it wasn’t. When he went for his annual physical as a senior in high school he learned that he was colorblind which meant his dreams of becoming a fighter pilot were gone. Forever.
A man worked tirelessly for years starting as a dishwasher and eventually made his way up through the restaurant ladder. He did all of this with the hope and dream of one day opening his own restaurant. He saved every single penny he could, crafted the perfect business plan, and finally, after years of hard work, received the bank loan he would need to make his dream come true.
And, all was well until it wasn’t. When he finally got the new restaurant ready to open, the grand opening happened to fall on the same day that the Governor required all restaurants to close because of the Coronavirus and within a few week his line of credit was gone and the restaurant was forced to close before it ever opened.
A woman lived for her family. She brought her children to church every week, sat with them night after night helping with homework, and was even happy to be a listening ear to her ever-complaining husband. She did all of the right things and was the envy of all her peers.
And, all was well until it wasn’t. In spite of her living for others, putting their needs in front of her own, her husband still ran off with his secretary leaving her, and their children, behind.
The truth of the matter is, sometimes hard work doesn’t pay off.
Life is not nearly as simple as we would like it to be, and no matter how hard we try, there’s no guarantee that we can make our wishes come true.
Paul continues his letter to the church in Philippi from behind bars with a reference to those who might offer counter-interpretations to the Gospel as he had delivered it. Like we still do today, he rolls out his resume that those reading might know who they should really trust.
“Look,” he writes, “If you should be listening to anyone, it should be me! Check this: I have more reason to be confident than any of these false teachers you may of encountered. I was circumcised when I was eight days old, I’m a member of the people Israel, from the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of Hebrews – I’ve never given into the temptation to assimilate to the ways of the others around me. I kept the faith of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob. And even more than that, I was Pharasiac in my observance of the Law doing all of the right things and avoiding all of the wrongs. But wait, there’s more! I persecuted the church! I made sure they knew they were wrong while the rest of us were right. I was completely and totally blameless under the Law!”
Notably, of Paul laundry list of qualifications, the majority were given to Paul at birth. That is: none of them were achieved by personal effort nor could they be taken away. They are marks of prestige that came simply because Paul was born in the right place to the right people.
He was born, we might say, with a religious silver spoon in his mouth.
But then he comes to the Law – A Pharisee. This, unlike all the previous qualifications, was not something given to him at birth but rather something he chose and worked tirelessly toward. Being a Pharisee meant observing all of the commandments, it required unending commitment, and it was all about maintaining purity by staying away from anything deemed unclean.
And still, Paul has more to add: A persecutor of the church. Not only did Paul separate himself from all the bad in the world, he attempted to eradicate uncleanness whenever he found it, particularly in the early gathering of people called the church.
As a Pharisee, as someone under the weight of the Law, Paul undoubtedly would’ve looked on the idea of a crucified Messiah as an unspeakable offense, something remarkable scandalous. So much so, that it provoked him to launch a campaign of terror in hopes of rooting out the would-be followers of the one who died on the cross.
And then comes the cherry on top – Blameless under the law. This, for Paul, was more important than anything else. All that he had done, all the rules and dietary restrictions and zealous violence, was done in the name of righteousness, of cleanliness, of religiosity.
“But,” and this is a very big but, Paul says, “whatever gains I had I count as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Paul’s world was completely upended by God in Christ.
Everything he thought he knew about what was right and true and good and beautiful was turned on its head because of the one on the cross.
Perhaps it was an instantaneous and miraculous deliverance wrought on the road to Damascus, or maybe it took Paul years of re-education to learn the truth, but nothing would ever be the same.
In Christ, Paul discovered that righteousness through ritual observance, or moral purity, don’t mean beans in the Kingdom of God.
For, Jesus, as God in the flesh, delighted in eating and drinking and having fun with sinners.
Jesus, as God in the flesh, regularly and routinely went to be with the people Paul only saw as unclean.
Jesus, as God in the flesh, mounted the hard wood of the cross to take away the sins of the world, the very sins Paul was using to judge who was in and who was out.
Paul, with his entire religious resume, was bombarded with a delightful truth: every alternation means to perfection, or salvation, or righteousness crumbles because, on our own, we can’t save ourselves.
Now, on the other side, only one thing matters to Paul – knowing Jesus Christ.
This is a truth that some of us come to discover whether we want to or not. Because all of our righteousness, all of our good works, don’t lead to much of anything in the end. If we could fix ourselves and the world, if we could right all of the wrongs, we would’ve done it a long long time ago.
However, as it stands, we’re still stuck in the land of the dead.
And yet, that where Jesus does his best work.
The Good News of the Gospel, spoken to us today through the apostle Paul, is that no matter how hard to we try to rework ourselves, no matter how worried we are about getting into heaven because of our choices, and our commitments, and our convictions, we are saved and already home free before we had a chance to get started.
Or, to put it another way, God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ will always and forever be greater than our own.
And knowing Jesus Christ, him crucified and resurrected, is the name of the game. To confess Jesus as Lord is to know God in all of God’s humility, coming to dwell among us, to die because of us, and to rise for us.
Knowing Jesus Christ is discovering that all other means to salvation, whether explicitly biblical or not, pale in comparison to what God has already done for us.
Knowing Jesus Christ is resting in the Good News, the best news, that grace is not expensive, its not even cheap, its free.
Paul, writing to the early church, reminds those who want to follow Jesus that we all fall prey to the temptation to see one another through our efforts and our failures. That, when left to our own devices, we delight in measuring the worth of others through outward signs of religiosity, spiritual disciplines, and moral observances.
For, that’s exactly what Paul’s life was all about until Jesus showed up. He relied on the Law to show him what was right and wrong, and therefore who was worthy and unworthy.
It’s akin to how, today, we determine everything we think we need to know about someone else by the kind of job they have, or the car they drive, or by the name of a political candidate stretching across a bumper sticker on the aforementioned automobile.
What Paul was unable to see, that is until Christ blinded him and gave him new vision, was that, under the Law, all of us are unworthy, all of us are in need of help, all of us are sinners in the hands of God.
And, AND, that no matter how hard we try on our own, all of our effort will be like sinking sand when compared with the actual condition of our condition. Our righteousness cannot make up for our sinfulness.
Paul, then, writes to the Philippians because he nows lives in a world constituted by grace and not by works. He encourages them to rest in and rely on Christ’s faithfulness because that’s the only thing they really need to do. All the outward signs of sanctimonious piety don’t mean much when the Lamb of God has already taken away the sins of the world.
Notice: the Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some – of only the good or the cooperative or the select few who manage to accuse a CV as detailed and glowing as Paul’s.
The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world!
The Cross is God’s great and forever declaration that there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus which, because he died for the sins of the world, includes each and every single one of us.
In another letter, to another church, Paul reminds the people of God that the Law exists to accuse us, to demonstrate to us what we’re really like until, while we are still sinners, grace comes and liberates us from the curse of sin without a single condition attached.
Or, to put it another way, there are no “ifs” in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus, while hanging on the cross, did not demand improvement.
Jesus, while hanging out in the tomb, doesn’t wait to break free until we all get out acts together.
Jesus, while hanging out by the right hand of the Father, doesn’t guilt trip us into more moral obligations in order to get a ticket into the Supper of the Lamb.
Instead Jesus lives, dies, and is resurrected in order to rectify and redeem the world, including us, in spite of us.
And the best news of all, Paul reminds us, that even if we continue to rebel, even if we do everything in our power to keep making a mess of things, Jesus Christ has already made us his own!
No mistake, no sin, no disappointment, no failure, and no rebellion can hold a candle to the love of God in Jesus Christ that draws us home and refuses to let us go.
So, maybe you’ve got reason to be confident in the flesh, perhaps you’ve done all the right things at all the right times in all the right places. But all of that is rubbish in the end. The Lamb of God has already taken away the sins of the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.
I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear. Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance. It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death.
Hey, look, I’ll be the first to admit – the conditions… they’re not great.
At first I thought, maybe they were sending me to one of those white-collar crime prisons. Do you know the ones I’m talking about? They’re the prisoners where they send rich people who stole money from other rich people, where you get to go outside and play tennis a few times a week, have cable television in your cell, and see your family on the weekend.
But, yeah, that’s not the type of prison I’m in.
I thought they’d send me to a nicer joint than this one because I didn’t really do much to get sent here in the first place.
It’s true enough that I was warned in plenty of towns to keep the chatter below the radar. And, to some degree, I understood the concerns. But it’s not like I was setting up insurrections, or inciting violence, or destroying public property.
I was merely story-telling. It’s just that some people didn’t like the stories I was telling.
At the right time, God came in flesh to dwell among us in Jesus Christ. Living, breathing, eating, sleeping, teaching, healing, all the good stuff.
And we hated it.
We hated the Good News because it ran counter to everything we’d been spoon-fed from birth. We thought we knew exactly what we would need to do, and then he shows up to tell us that he was doing it all for us, in spite of us.
Some of us responded by leaving it all behind to follow. Others, such as myself, became all the more zealous to stamp it out as quickly as possible.
But Jesus doesn’t quit.
He moved from town to town, giving people glimpses of a world they couldn’t even believe, and finally, when we’d grown tired of all his goodness, we decided to do something about it.
The whole, ‘the first will be last and the last will be first’ got under our skin and we couldn’t let him remain – he threatened to disrupt all that we had grown so accustom to. So, we hung him up in a tree for all the world to see, and we killed him.
But, of course, this was to happen according to God’s strange workings in the world.
Because even though we killed God, God came back three days later, an empty tomb signified the flipping of the cosmos. And now we’re no longer in the world of our own design, but instead we’re living in the light and grace and mercy of God who destroyed death and canceled the power of sin.
God, believe it or not, set us free.
Anyway, they eventually caught me and locked me up for being a “threat to society.”
And, as I previously mentioned, though I was hoping for some nicer digs, I’m currently being held in a horrifying dismal cell. And, to make matters worse, they decided to chain me up to a new guard each and every day so I don’t “get any wild ideas.”
Maybe they heard about what happened to me when I got locked up before and the earthquake allowed me to escape…
Nevertheless, here I am. And, believe it or not, what has happened has actually served to advance the Gospel.
Now, I want to be clear: The fact that God brings good out of evil does not make evil good. The Lord works in mysterious ways, making evil to serve God’s purposes despite itself. In ways both small and large, in ways known and unknown, God has power over sin, evil, and death and is able to achieve God’s own purposes of grace and peace.
Think about it like the great reversal from Good Friday to Easter. That’s at the root of the whole Gospel story.
Jesus, hanging on a cross for the world to see, belittled and beaten and betrayed. There’s nothing good about crucifixion. And yet, God chose to use the sign of death to defeat death forever and ever.
Because that cross now stands empty to the sky, reminding those of us who follow the Lord that the tomb could not contain him, that he is still contending against the powers and principalities of this life, and that, in the end, love wins.
This is the way God works, contrary to how we might do it were we in charge of the whole operation.
The Lord dabbles in unexpected deliverances, in surprising turns of events, in providential happenstances. All of them are echoes of the great reversal that began that first Easter morning. They are foretaste of the world yet to come. They are the bread and the wine at the table, the undeserved invitation, the unmerited forgiveness.
They don’t always fit and fall when we want them to, but when God’s up to something, the best thing we can do is get out of the way and say “thanks.”
Consider my situation: Locked up for a minor offense, derided by some from the local community, and yet I still proclaim God’s grace and peace. Some might believe that my mission has stopped, or that no good can come from all this.
But whoever believes that has forgotten that God works in impossible possibilities – God makes a way where there is no way.
I want you to know that being here has actually helped spread the Good News, so much so that it has become known throughout the whole of the prison staff. And not only that, but my evangelism, that is sharing the Good News, in a place such as this has given others the boldness and the confidence to speak the Word wherever they may be.
Despite my chains, despite my present circumstances, the Gospel is spreading and I remain free as a slave to the Lord. My shackles have become yet another occasion for me to tell anyone with ears to hear about the differences between what the world does to us and what God has done for us.
I might be trapped in this place, but there is a joy in my heart – a joy that only comes from belonging to Jesus
Thanks be to God.
Now, as to how the Gospel has become known… Well, again, its partly a mystery.
I didn’t, contrary to what I’ve heard others do, frighten them with fire and brimstone. I didn’t tell them to shape up or ship out. I didn’t tell them that God will torture them forever and ever unless they confess Jesus as Lord.
There will always be those who proclaim Christ from different, and even wrong places. Some do so out of envy and rivalry while still yet other do so with the best intentions. There will come so-called evangelists who are only in it for themselves or their wallets and purses. And, finally, there will come some in the name of the Lord who want to make other believers suffer for their beliefs.
And in the end, what does it matter?
So long as Jesus is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true, it makes little difference. In fact, if Jesus is proclaimed I will rejoice and I will continue to rejoice, because that’s the only thing that matters.
For what it’s worth: I happen to believe that the Good News should sound like Good News.
So, the other day, when a guard was complaining next to me about his own circumstances (not enough food for his family, fears about not measuring up to his family’s hopes and dreams, worry he will be punished by the gods for his infidelity), I told him the truth. No matter the condition of his condition, One has already come to take away the burdens of this life.
That, if his family is hungry, they might consider finding a local Ekklesia, that is, a gathering of those who follow Jesus, for they will give them food for nothing.
Or, if he is worried about his worth, the Lord sees him as he really is, the good and the bad together, and already decided he was worth the cost of the cross.
Or, if the thought of torment for lapses in morality are keeping him awake at night, he need only consider the fact that Jesus, God in the flesh, already took and nailed the sins of the world to the cross and left them there forever.
But, I know other people in this line of work have other ideas about how to proclaim Jesus, and frankly some of them don’t like the way I do it at all.
If I may be so candid – There are tensions that exist within our community of faith, whether its in your city or in any of the others. Perhaps you already know how hard it is for a group of people called disciples to get along. If someone ever sets out to put a collection of the Scriptures together one day (What if they put these letters in? That would be kind of cool…) you’ll see how quickly people disagree about what it all really means.
I don’t want to make it seem as if everything is perfect all the time. And, if we don’t find a way to work together, some people in the future might get the bright idea to break up the church into denominations.
And even if all of that happens, if the church splinters, and arguments arise over the Word of God, all of that will still pale in comparison to what God has already done for you, me, and the world in the person of Jesus.
Nobody, not the devil, not the world, not the flesh, not even ourselves, can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. We can, of course, do everything in our power to squirm and complain and set up stumbling blocks for ourselves and others, and we can make a hell of a mess in the process. But God is the one who both makes us and reconciles us. That means there is no way, literally, on earth or in hell, that we will ever be outside God’s graceful work in reconstituting the cosmos.
Or, to put it another way, if Jesus is truly proclaimed, what difference do our differences make?
There’s enough hardship and suffering in this world to argue over petty disagreements.
The Lord came to save the world, not beat it down into submission for perfect obedience.
The Lord died and rose again that we might have life, and life abundant, not anxiety about who’s the best teacher and best apostle.
The Lord turned the world upside down, the only thing we need to do is live in it.
So I rejoice, even behind these bars, and I will continue to rejoice! If I am delivered from this bondage, wonderful. But if not, I’ve already been freed from the greatest bondage of all – sin and death.
I thank you then for all your prayers and it is my eager hope and expectation that even through this Christ will be exalted now as always, whether I live or die.
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and the deacons. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and the praise of God.
There’s no such thing as a solitary Christian.
The work of the church, that is the body of Christ, never takes place in a vacuum. It was, and always will be, rooted in community and carried out for the sake of community.
At least, that’s the idea.
On January 30th, 1933, Adolf Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany and thus began the Third Reich. Germany, the land that produced the likes of Bach, Goethe, and Durer was now being led by a man who consorted with criminals and was often seen carrying around a dog whip in public. Hitler’s words and orations regularly incited violence from his crowds and Germany would never be the same.
Two days after Hitler was elected, a twenty-six year old theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address throughout the German nation. The speech was titled “The Younger Generation’s Altered Concept of Leadership.” The talk itself was highly philosophical, but it also specifically argued against the type of leadership that Hitler would use over the following twelve year, inevitably leading a nation and half the world into a nightmare of violence and misery.
However, before Bonhoeffer could finish, the radio signal was cut off.
Only two days after Hitler’s election, the Nazis were already suppressing the voice of one calling into question the powers and principalities made manifest in a nation.
Paul begins his letter to the church in Philippi with his standard, and yet magnificent, greeting: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Words, admittedly, that we throw around a lot in the church but contain multitudes.
To begin with grace is a recognition that grace is Christ’s presence to all of us as a gift. It is God’s contradiction of sin and death, it is God’s contending against the powers and principalities of this life. For, grace is the opposite of how the world works.
Grace is unmerited and unearned favor. Which stands in contradiction with a people who live by merit and favor, by power and violence.
The world says, “do this and do that.” Grace says, “It’s already done.”
The cross of Christ, hanging empty in the sky, is a stark declaration and reminder that God stands against sin, evil, and death. It is, problematic language not withstanding, God’s war on our behalf. Grace invades into existence not because we believed in God just enough, or because we said the right prayers, but simply because God is merciful.
And grace never stops coming.
It marks the beginning of Paul’s letters, it is the thread that runs throughout every single correspondence, and it is the foundation upon which the church stands. Grace exists to deliver us from sin and death. It comes, that is, to deliver we sinners from what we really deserve.
And we really don’t deserve it.
We are all highly susceptible to the powers and principalities of this life, the myriad ways that sins sinks us lower and lower into the pits of our own making. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. One need only scroll through the likes of Twitter or Facebook for five minutes to be bombarded with our total depravity.
But grace comes to bring mercy and life instead of condemnation and death.
That’s why grace is always unsettling and always new – it is completely contrary to just about everything else in this life.
According to the ways of the world, grace doesn’t make sense.
And it’s with grace that Paul begins his letter. Grace, that is, and peace.
Peace is a challenging word for the church because we can define it in all sorts of ways.
Is peace simply the absence of conflict?
Is peace possible only when we lay down our arms?
For Paul, peace means conflict with the world, even as peace with the world means conflict with God. Living in the light of God’s grace and peace will bring those who follow the Lord into contention with all that the world stands for.
Peace is not sitting idly by hoping for the best, its not singing kumbaya by the father, its not a CocaCola advertisement.
The peace of God contains the wisdom to change what can be changed while refusing to accept the things that cannot be changed (contrary to the so-called “Serenity Prayer”).
God’s grace and peace put forth a radical retelling of the cosmos, and they cannot be stopped.
Things became very difficult for the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer after he made that first radio address. As Germany further descended into Fuhrer worship with the German church emphasizing the politics of a nation over and against the theology of scripture, Bonhoeffer struggled with what it meant to be faithful to the Lord. Eventually, he began training other pastors through an underground seminary where the chief message was to remain faithful to God even if it meant being at odds with your country.
By 1940, Bonhoeffer was forbidden from speaking publicly and he had to regularly report his activities to the German police. Within a year he was no longer allowed to print or publish any of his writings. And on April 5th, 1943, ten years after his first radio address, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo for his continual Anti-Nazi remarks and involvement with the Abwher’s plot to undermine Hitler.
For two years Bonhoeffer sat in prison and, strangely enough, sympathetic guards smuggled out his letters and papers that included his theological reflection in the midst of his imprisonment.
One might expect that Bonhoeffer would question his faith behind bars, or recant from his previous beliefs if it would mean his release. But most of his letters, though excluding the occasional complaint about his particular conditions, contain thoughts on the joy of discipleship even with its costs.
He wrote from shackles to a people immersed in the second World War of God’s unending grace, even while the world stood in contradiction.
Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, beginning with grace and peace, reveals the condition of his own condition: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now… It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.”
Paul writes of joy from his own joyless location to a people who, apparently, felt no joy. Throughout his letter there are signs of anxiety from among the Philippians – they suffered for their convictions whether it meant Roman persecution or social hostility.
And yet Paul points them to the joy of the gospel in spite of whatever their hardships might be.
But notice: He does so not as a denial of their present circumstances, not as a prosperity gospel in which things will get better if they just work harder. No, Paul writes about joy because, as disciples, they know God!
Its as if Paul is saying, “Look, I know it’s rough. But if all you ever do is look at your own failures or the failures of those around you, that’s all you will ever see. But here’s the Good News (the best news): no matter how bad your sins might be, no matter how trying your circumstances might be, God is greater than your sins and your suffering. So don’t put your hope in yourselves or the people around you. They might make some changes, but in the end God is greater. Despite all our failures and all our weaknesses, despite all our disappointments, God has already changed the world. Everything else is sinking sand.”
Though Bonhoeffer remained hopeful for the end of the War and his release from prison, he was condemned to death in April of 1945. He was killed by handing just two weeks before the US military liberated the camp where he was being held.
Shortly before his execution, Bonhoeffer concluded a worship service for his fellow inmates, and as he walked toward the waiting noose he said to another prisoner: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.”
Bonhoeffer and Paul’s joy in the midst of their own respective incarcerations is instructive for those of us who follow Christ today. Because whether in prison or in the courtroom, whether in chains or freedom, they both strived to do one thing above all else – share the Good News.
For, the Good News is that another one bound by shackles, God in the flesh, ridiculed, betrayed, and abandoned, marched to his own execution while carrying the instrument of his death. He hung from the cross for the world to see, and yet as he look out on the world he proclaimed forgiveness for a people underserving.
His earthly life ended as it began – by, with, and through grace.
Grace is a joy and it will forever stand as God’s defiant “Nevertheless!” to the powers and principalities of the world. And it cannot be stopped.
The only thing we have to do is take Jesus at his word.
And when we do that, when we put our trust in Jesus instead of ourselves and all of our schemes, then we are living in his grace.
And no matter what happens to us in the course of trusting – no matter how many waverings we have, no matter how many times we fail – we believe that Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, all we have to do is say thank you and rest.
Because all that we have to show for ourselves is not much to begin with. And, contrary to how we would run the show, Jesus chooses not to condemn us whether are works are bad or good.
Jesus is our grace.
And that makes all the difference. Amen.
I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
On Sunday I went a little off sermon and walked down from the altar and talked extemporaneously about our incessant desire to make it appear as if we all have it all together. I shared about how, as a pastor, I have the unique privilege of knowing about what’s going on behind the curtain for more than most and that all of us, no matter how good our lives look on the outside, are struggling with something on the inside.
I wasn’t planning on saying any of it, but I could tell from the expressions on faces that it was hitting hard. As we continued on in worship, and eventually stood to share signs of Christ’s peace with one another, more than a few people were wiping tears away from their eyes as they were beginning to open up with their fellow disciples about what life has thrown at them.
Contrary to what we might hear or even believe, the story of faith isn’t about how we’ve got it all figured out. In fact, the opposite is true: we are all struggling through and looking for relief from our burdens. Or, as the psalmist puts it, we are looking for God to pull us up from the miry bogs of our existence.
Francine Christophe is a French poet who survived the Holocaust. A few years ago she was interviewed for a documentary about what it means to be human and this is what she said:
“I was born on August 18th, 1933. 1933 was the year when Hitler took power… When I was 11 years old in the Bergen-Belsen camp, an amazing thing happened. Let me remind you, as the children of prisoners of war, we were privileged. We were permitted to bring something from France. A little bad, with two of three small items. One woman brought chocolate, another some sugar, a third a handful of rice. My mom had packed two little pieces of chocolate. She said to me, ‘We’ll keep this for a day when I see you’ve collapsed completely, and really need help. I’ll give you this chocolate and you’ll feel better.’
“One of the women imprisoned with us was pregnant. You couldn’t tell, she was so skinny. But the day came and she went into labor. She went to the camp hospital with my mother, who was the barracks chief. Before they left, my mother said, ‘Remember that chocolate I was saving for you?’ ‘Yes Mama.’ ‘How do you feel?’ ‘Fine, Mama. I’ll be okay.’ ‘Well then, if its alright with you, I’d like to bring your chocolate to this lady, our friend Helene. Giving birth here will be hard. She may die. If I give her the chocolate, it may help her.’ ‘Yes Mama. Go ahead.’
“Helene gave birth to the baby. A tiny, little, feeble thing. She ate the chocolate. She did not die. She came back to the barracks. The baby never cried. Never! She didn’t even wail. 6 months later, the camp was liberated. They unwrapped the baby’s rags and she screamed. That was the day she was really born. She was taken back to France – a puny little thing for 6 months.
“A few years ago, my daughter asked me, ‘Mama, if you deportees had had psychologists or psychiatrists when you returned, maybe it would’ve been easier for you.’ I replied, ‘Undoubtedly, but we didn’t have them. No one thought of mental illness. But you gave me a good idea. We’ll have a lecture on that topic.’ I organized a lecture on the theme and invited people to come and participate.
“The lecture drew quite a crowd. Elderly survivors, historians, and many psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists. It was quite interesting. Many ideas emerged. It was excellent. Then, a woman took the podium and said, ‘I live in Marseille, where I am a psychiatrist. Before I deliver my talk, I have something for Francine Christophe.’ In other words, me. She reached into her pocket, and pulled out a piece of chocolate. She gave it to me and said, ‘I am the baby.’”
I can’t imagine the fear of being pregnant while in a concentration camp. New birth and new life is supposed to be filled with such hope and promise, but to be pregnant in one of those camps was basically a death sentence.
Francine Christophe’s story is a powerful reminder of the new life in the midst of chaos, hope within calamity. In it we are forced to reckon with how much we need each other, and how much we are needed by one another, and how God is helping us through the miry bog we call life.