The Gospel Truth

John 18.33-38

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

I don’t know if any of you remember this but, a few years ago there was this very contentious presidential election. Someone named Hillary Clinton and someone named Donald Trump both really wanted to be president. More money was spent during that election than any other election in history (until the most recent presidential election). Families were divided in a way that they never had been before, or so said the talking heads on all the news channels every night.

I, myself, tried to bring some semblance of fidelity to the season by hosting a prayer service in which I sought to remind people that, through Christ, we have more in common than our political proclivities would allow us to believe. I planned to break bread with all who gathered so that, no matter what happened with the election, we would remember that we belong to the kingdom of God and that we, together, are disciples of the King of kings.

“Welcome!” I intoned from the pulpit to the crowd. “Welcome to our church for our worship service. However, before we begin, I would like all of the Republicans to sit on the right side of the sanctuary, all of the Democrats can move to the left, and anyone else can take a seat somewhere in the center aisle.”

No one laughed.

Apparently, the presidential election wasn’t funny, not even in church.

Well, when the day of the election arrived, I made my way to my voting location which just happened to be the local Seventh Day Adventist Church. I pulled into the parking lot and witnessed Red Hats screaming at Blue Shirts and Blue Shirts screaming at Red Hats. Yard signs adorned every available spot on every available yard. And I can distinctly remember all of the poll workers looking decisively dreadful.

I ascended the outdoor stairs into the church’s fellowship hall and took my place in line. I waited patiently for my opportunity to fill out my vote and did some people watching. I saw slumped shoulders, furrowed brows, fidgeting fingers, and it was as if the previous months of political vitriol had sucked the very life out of our community. 

And then it was my turn.

I filled out my form, brought it over to a machine that promptly consumed it with a ding, and sighed a relief knowing that it was finally over.

Then I looked up.

And right there, stretching across the wall of the Fellowship Hall was a mural of Jesus.

It wasn’t Jesus dying on the cross.

It wasn’t even Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Instead it was a mural of Jesus laughing his butt off.

And it was perfect.

The disciples have betrayed, abandoned, and denied Jesus. Arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, dragged before the High Priest and scribes, and now he stands accused before Pontius Pilate.

“Who are you exactly?” the political occupier intones. Mind you, when Jesus entered the city on the back of a donkey, surrounded by a modest crowd, Pilate was also entering the city, but he came with pomp and circumstance, imagine horses and soldiers and banners and such. 

And now, a few days later, the two of them sit face to face.

“Are you the King of the Jews?” As in, “Are you a threat to my emperor’s empire?”

“Do you really want to know, or did others tell you about me?”

“Look, why do you keep answering all my questions with questions? It’s your own people who have delivered you to my throne, so tell me, what did you do?”

“My kingdom,” Jesus says, “is not from this world. If it were, my disciples would be storming the gates of your palace and doing everything in their power to take your power away. But, as it is, my kingdom is different.”

“So you are a king then?” Pilate asks.

“If you say so. But it really doesn’t matter. For this I was born, for this I came into the world. I’m here to tell the truth. And everyone who belongs to the truth listen to my voice.”

And Pilate says, “What is truth?”

That’s where the text for today ends: this unanswerable question dangling in the air.

But I want to remind all of us what happens next, for I believe it actually answers the question…

After this, Pilate goes out to the religious leaders again and tells them that he finds no case against Jesus. And yet, Pilate knows there is a custom every year on Passover during which the empire’s representative would release one person from captivity. So Pilate goes to the crowds and he says, “Do you want me to release Jesus, this so-called king of the Jews?” And they yell in response: “No! Give us the insurrectionist Barabbas instead!”

Pilate let the crowds choose who they will save, Jesus is beaten and bedraggled, he is adorned with a crown of thorns and a purple robe, he carries the instrument of his own death to the place called The Skull, and they put an inscription over him that says, “This is the King of the Jews.”

Why was Jesus killed?

That’s almost as difficult as a question to answer as, “What is truth?”

After all, wasn’t Jesus just trying to get us all to be a little kinder to one another? If the Gospel, and the ministry of the Lord, is merely, “Treat others as you wish to be treated,” then why did Jesus end up on the cross?

You don’t kill someone for asking you to be nice.

You kill someone when you can’t handle their truth.

What happens in and to Jesus is not something that is personal or private, as we sometimes water down the faith. What happens in and to Jesus is very public and political. If the authorities wanted to be rid of Jesus they could’ve taken care of it easily and tossed his body in some random alley in Jerusalem. But they wanted to make an example of him. This is what happens for those who call into question the truth of the empire.

And yet, here on Christ the King Sunday, we confront the terrifying and life-giving reality that our King rules from the cross. Jesus’ throne is not built on the blood of his enemies. His throne is cruciform. The only blood it contains is his own. 

Notably, Christ the King Sunday is a more recent addition to the liturgical calendar. It was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in large part as a response to the horrific and murderous realities of WWI and the rise of fascism all across Europe. 

Celebrating the reign of Christ is but one way of proclaiming the gospel truth – If we believe that Jesus is Lord then that means something has to change about who we are and what we do. 

Or, to put it simply, what we believe shapes how we behave.

The salvation wrought by cross and resurrection involves making us citizens of a time and space that is in tension with all other forms of citizenship.

The world tells us to earn all we can.

The kingdom tells us we already have what we need.

The world tells us that winners finish first.

The kingdom tells us that the last shall be first.

The world tells us that we are defined by our mistakes.

The kingdom tells us that we are defined only by our King.

It doesn’t get more political than this in church. And yet, inherent in today’s proclamation is the challenge of coming to grips with what it means to pledge allegiance to our King. We live in a democracy, we don’t know what it means to have a King. 

Kings are not chosen.

So, to be clear, Jesus is not our president. And for good reason. We never would’ve picked him. 

Turn the other cheek? Go the extra mile? Take up your cross and follow me?

Those don’t make for very good campaign slogans.

Contrary to how it’s been portrayed in the church or even in our wider culture, we never really pick Jesus. When all is said and done, when the King of kings and Lord of lords comes to dwell among us, we nail him to the cross.

We, to put it bluntly, pick Barabbas instead.

Which makes some of Jesus’ final words are the more powerful: “Forgive them Lord, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Jesus isn’t trying to win an election, he’s not trying to convince us of anything, he’s not offering empty promises about the next 2-4 years. 

Instead, Jesus elects us to a kingdom that we would never choose on our own – he brings the future and the truth to us.

Some of us are here this morning because we can’t imagine being anywhere else. It is Sunday after all. But there’s a good chance that a whole lot of us are here because we are looking for the truth.

For as much as the kingdoms of the world are built on the blood of enemies, they are also founded on fabrications – the world is built and sold and traded on lies.

But not here.

Not in the church.

We are an outpost of the kingdom of God in foreign territory.

We are strangers in a strange land.

Many of us are suffocating under the oppressive power of deception. The powers and principalities of this world are constantly vying for our allegiances. They do everything in their power to convince us that power come through strength, that tribalism will rule the day, and that the most important animal is either a Donkey or an Elephant. It’s why so many of us now dread the Thanksgiving table because it forces us to confront that wayward uncle with the undesirable political opinion who, with every extra glass of wine, continues to say things that boil our blood. 

The Donkey and the Elephant can’t and won’t save us. They, in large part, exist to instill a sense of freedom that actually results in isolation. They attempt to rid us of our baptismal identities to tell us that our political identities are more important. They promise a salvation that just leads to more division.

But here’s the Good News, the really really Good News: Our King rules from the throne of the cross, the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world, ours included.

And that’s why Jesus laughs.

Jesus laughs at our foolishness in thinking that we can save ourselves, that we can fix all the problems in the world. 

You want to know what’s wrong with the world? We are!

When the bonds forged by the names on our bumpers become more determinative than the bonds that are forged in baptism, then we have fallen prey to the elephant and the donkey in the room.

But we are Jesus people! We believe that telling the truth is the beginning of a revolution of the heart. We confess Jesus as our Lord which means that the most important political animal is Lamb of God!

Jesus is the truth incarnate come to set us free. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Playlist of Faith

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the 25th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Samuel 1.4-20 1 Samuel 2.1-10, Hebrews 10.11-25, Mark 13.1-8). Josh serves Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including door stoppers, double dipping, the importance of names, John Behr, the theology of death, singing the faith, prophetic calls, the “S” word, Good News, blessed assurance, Little Red Riding Hood, and apocalyptic language. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Playlist of Faith

Lift High The Priest

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Job 38.1-7, Psalm 104.1-9, 24, 35c, Hebrews 5.1-10, Mark 10.35-45). Jason serves Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and Teer serves Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including reunions, graphic novels, preconceived notions, agency, majestic clothing, parodic embodiment, political projections, the theology of worship, and John Howard Yoder. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Lift High The Priest

An Understanding Mind

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

By Which Alone We Live

Psalm 45.1

My heart overflows with a goodly theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

Poetry is not my forte.

That is, I can neither write poetry nor do I often understand it.

Give me a big work of theology, or nonfiction, or fiction and I will plow through the words.

But poetry? No thank you.

Poetry, unlike just about all other writing, is not meant to be consumed quickly.

Poetry takes time.

And so I force myself to read poems out loud and with a slow pace, otherwise I run the risk of leaving the poem no wiser than I was at the beginning.

Lots of scripture is poetic, or at least it’s meant to be received poetically. We are not called to be masters of the text but instead we are called to be servants of the Word. 

And that takes time.

Frankly, it’s why we keep returning to the same scriptures year after year because those words reveal to us something about the Word. And when we come closer to the Word we discover more about who we are and whose we are. 

A few years ago, while forcing myself through a collection of poems, one jumped out at me. It was so powerful and so moving that I read it over and over not because of a lack of comprehension, but because it was so true

That poem is below and I encourage you to take the time to read it slowly, read it out loud if you have to, until you can rest in the knowledge that grace really is the fund by which alone we live.

Original Sin by Wendell Berry

Well, anyhow, it preserves us from the pride

of thinking we invented sin ourselves

by our originality, that famous modern power.

In fact, we have it from the beginning

of the world by the errors of being born,

being young, being old, causing pain

to ourselves, to others, to the world, to God

by ignorance, by knowledge, by intention,

by accident. Something is bad the matter 

here, informing us of itself, handing down

its old instruction. We know it

when we see it, don’t we? Innocence

would never recognize it. We need it

too, for without it we would not know 

forgiveness, goodness, gratitude,

that fund of grace by which alone we live. 

Wendell Berry

Good Theology

Psalm 24.1

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.

I stood up on Sunday morning and led worship for a new church. At least, it’s a new church for me. Methodists are, usually, used to pastors moving around to serve different appointments, but it’s always a little jarring going from one pastor to another in the matter of a week. 

When the service was over we all milled about on the front lawn sharing lemonade and I received my first round of Sunday morning comments: “We’ve got some great weather today!” “Got any plans for the afternoon?” and so on.

But there was one comment that really stood out. A woman old enough to be my grandmother waited patiently for an opportunity to step forward, she grabbed me by the hand, and said, “It’s nice to know that God is still God no matter who stands in our pulpit.”

That’s some good theology.

While certain United Methodists are starting over because of new pastoral appointments, we’re all in the process of starting over because, in ways big and small, we’re transitioning to a time called life after Covid. It means we have to relearn what it means to be in physical spaces with one another. It means we have to be cognizant of those who are not ready to return to the way things were. It means the church has the challenge and the opportunity to be the church in a time that is so unknown.

But we’re also all in the process of starting over because that’s what the liturgy does to us. No matter what we have going on in our lives, no matter what we’ve done or failed to do, God speaks truthful words through our worship about who we are and whose we are. 

On Sunday, I got to look out at an entirely different congregation than the one the week before and yet I was able to say, with assurance, the same thing: “Now hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!” 

Forgiveness is the beginning to which we return to over and over again and it’s what makes the life of faith so exciting in the first place.

And, because I often feel like music does a better job at conveying theological claims than mere words alone, here are some tunes to help us think about what it means to start over:

Chris Stapleton’s “Starting Over” is a song made for couples along the road of a relationship. The singer-songwriter’s baritone is met, beautifully, by his wife’s accompanying harmonies as they proclaim a beautiful chorus about holding on to something while everything else seems to change.

Lucy Dacus’ music haunts me. Her voice sounds like she just consumed a cup of cream and her lyricism paints these landscapes of memory. “VBS” is her reflection on growing up in the church and coming to grips now with what it all meant. If nothing else, stick around for the face-melting guitar riff near the end of the song.

What Is Love, If Not Jesus Persevering?

“I can’t stand people who say, ‘Well, when it’s all said and done, what’s really important is that we love one another.’ No! You’ve gotta love one another rightly. And how do we do that? Well, in the Gospel of John Jesus declares, ‘I call you my friends and now you can love one another.’ Remember: to be a friend of Jesus didn’t turn out very well for most of the disciples. The love that moves the sun and the stars (Dante) is that love that sustains the disciples through the challenge of dying – that is the love that is rightly seen at the center of the Christian life. Love is rightly understood to be the very substance of relation between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” – Stanley Hauerwas

If you check out any church website, or examine any sign on a church property, you are pretty much guaranteed to see something about love. “We love everyone at this church!” “All are welcome here!” “We have open hearts, open minds, open doors!”

Which is all good and fine, but it’s not true. At least, not really. 

The church is in the business of welcoming all people but then we usually tell them, explicitly or implicitly, that they need to start acting like us. That is: we are fine with loving people until they fit the version of themselves that we want them to be.

Love, then, is radically coercive and predicated on how we view one another rather than how God views us.

Or, in some churches, our understanding of what it means to love remains forever in the realm of sentimentality and we do the bare minimum to maintain relationships that never extend to anything behind polite hellos. 

Stanley Hauerwas, on the other hand, rightly observes that we know what love looks like because we know Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Love, then, isn’t whatever we view on the Hallmark channel or celebrate around on Valentine’s day. Love isn’t a bouquet of flowers or a box of chocolates. 

Love is cruciform.

Love is death and resurrection.

Love is coming down into the muck and mire of this life to make something of our nothing. 

And, because I often think music does a better job at expressing theological principles than mere words alone, here are some tunes to get us thinking of what it means to love rightly.

Natalie Bergman will be releasing her first solo record “Mercy” on May 7th. The album is a beautiful amalgamation of psychedelia and gospel and it follows her search for hope and salvation amidst the loss of both of her parents in a car accident. The song “Home At Last” is a profound reflection on love and loss with some wicked harmonies.

J.E. Sunde is a singer/songwriter who hails from Minneapolis. “Sunset Strip” has a super-catchy melody with harmonies that are reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Oddly, it feels upbeat but it delivers a gut punch of repentance: “Yes I did wrong but you know I confessed it / I wrote this song just to prove that I meant it / But now you’re gone and I feel empty / I feel empty I feel empty.”

Leon Bridges has one of those voices that feels out of time, in a good way. “Like A Ship” is a cover of T.L. Bennet gospel tune from 1971 and it sees Bridges lifting up his silky smooth voice with a groovy baseline on top of some tight drums. A gospel choir belts out the harmonic anthem and the song, appropriately, ends with an organ solo that would delight any Sunday morning church crowd. 

Internalizing The Eternal

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the 7th Sunday of Easter [B] (Acts 1.15-17, 21-26, Psalm 1, 1 John 5.9-13, John 17.6-19). Ken is the pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Our conversation covers a range of topics including a trinity of books, the agency of Emmaus, ecclesial discernment, theological education, the confounding nature of the Spirit, reading in community, a full life, and the sectarian temptation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Internalizing The Eternal

The Way Things Can Be

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus is alive! 

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus Is Not A New Moses

We think the Law can save and fix our messed up and broken lives.

From infancy we’re spoon-fed a narrative of righteous self-determination, that if you do all the right things, and go to the right school, and marry the right partner, then everything will be as it should be.

Until it isn’t.

And then the Law refuses to let us go.

So we adopt new habits: we buy a Peloton, we go on a new diet, we stay up late into the evening looking at Zillow for the next perfect house, we “Marie Kondo” our lives in order to get things under control.

And, even if some things change, perhaps we get that nice dopamine hit from imagining ourselves in a new place or we can fit into clothes we haven’t worn since college, we can’t actually fix ourselves with the “law.”

At some point the new house becomes the hold house, a few weeks away from the gym brings our waistline back, and on and on.

Enter Jesus.

Jesus came to bring us something better than another law, something better than another set of things we must do in order to get God to do something for us. Sure, we’re called to love God and neighbor, turn the other cheek, pray for our enemies, but those are never prerequisites for the Kingdom.

Remember: The Kingdom is already among us. Our sins were nailed to the cross and left there forever. 

The Law (from scripture and from life) is good, but it kills us. It exists to accuse us and it shows us, over and over again, who we really are. For, to borrow an expression from Paul, no one is righteous, no, not one.

Even our subtle exercises in self-denial during Lent help to remind us of the condition of our condition: Lent isn’t about participating in spiritual olympics in which we compete with one another to see who can be the most holy – instead it’s about confronting the fact that our desires will always get the better of us.

But the Law, and its ability to deaden us, is Good News and exactly what we need. It’s only in death (read: Baptism) that we begin to know the One who came to give us grace.

Contrary to how we often water down the Gospel, we worship a rather odd God. Our God who, among other things, speaks from a burning bush, promises offspring to a wandering octogenarian, and saves the cosmos through death on a cross.

And for Christians, we know who this odd God is because we know Jesus Christ. 

Therefore, Jesus is not a new Moses who displaces the old law with a new one. Instead, Jesus is the New Adam who inaugurates an entirely new cosmos.

Jesus is not a new Moses because, as the Gospel of John reminds us, the Word was God before the foundation of the world. 

Jesus is not a new Moses who offers a set of guidelines to save ourselves and the world. Instead Jesus comes to be our salvation in himself.

Here’s the Good News: On any given Sunday (even in the midst of a global pandemic) the people of God called church gather together to hear the most important word we will ever hear: 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.

Notice – Christ died for us while we were sinners, not before and not after. Christ chooses to die for us right in the midst of the worst mistake we’ve ever made or will ever make. 

In the end, that’s what it’s all about. 

We don’t follow the Law in order to get God to save us. 

We are already saved which then frees us to follow the Law – we do the things Christ calls us to do not because it earns us anything, but simply because it makes life a whole lot more fun. 

Jesus isn’t a new Moses – Jesus is God. And that’s the difference that makes all the difference.