JOSHUA Sometimes We Are Righteous

40 So Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the Lord God of Israel commanded. 41 And Joshua struck them from Kadesh-barnea as far as Gaza, and all the country of Goshen, as far as Gibeon. 42 And Joshua captured all these kings and their land at one time, because the Lord God of Israel fought for Israel. 43 Then Joshua returned, and all Israel with him, to the camp at Gilgal. (Joshua 10:40–43 ESV)

I am not a pietist, not by any stretch of the imagination. I have little patience for piety, especially the teetotaling, “I Am Righteous Before The Lord Because I Do Everything That I am Supposed to Do and Refrain From Everything I am Supposed to Do” kind of piety the seems to typify much of American Christendom.

Personal piety, that shows one is a good person who is right with God. That one does what God says.

In this, I am fully Lutheran — I am a sinner, and I cannot follow the teaching of God. I cannot be righteous. I cannot do what God tells me, and I cannot stop doing what God forbids me.

I am only righteous because Christ forgave me, because I am included in his life, death, and resurrection in my baptism. Because he pronounces his forgiveness to me, time and again, at the table, where he redeeming promises are made real in bread and wine.

This is my body. This is my blood. Given for you. Do this and remember me.

But these last 20 or so verses of Joshua show something worth reminding even a rotgut sinner like myself — sometimes we can do what God tells us. Sometimes we are capable of following the commands of God, of doing good, of forbidding evil, and reaping the blessings that God has promised.

These last few verses are a litany of efficient brutality. Joshua puts a lot of people — five nations, to be precise — to the sword, leaving no survivors and letting no one escape, in the narrative from verse 29 to verse 43. Joshua is delivering his people into the land promised long ago.

I like how in The Brick Testament — Bible stories illustrated by Legos — Joshua is always very angry, like that weird guy you all probably knew growing up who believed the Bible far too intensely and could quite too much of it length for no reason in particular…

But make no mistake, even as Joshua and Israel do all they are asked exactly as God asks, the work is still not theirs. The work is God’s. “For the Lord, the God of Israel, fought for Israel.” The Lord, and the Lord alone, delivered these people into Israel’s hands. Israel is merely an instrument.

The victory is God’s alone. The glory is God’s alone. The righteousness is God’s alone.

And so even as we can manage to follow the teaching, do (or not do) as God commands us, live upright whatever we strive for, or work for, or do, is still a gift, is still grace, still the provision of a merciful God who promises redemption to victory to we who have nothing of our own.

It is still nothing we have earned.

JOSHUA Signs and Wonders and the Work of God

1 Then Joshua rose early in the morning and they set out from Shittim. And they came to the Jordan, he and all the people of Israel, and lodged there before they passed over. 2 At the end of three days the officers went through the camp 3 and commanded the people, “As soon as you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God being carried by the Levitical priests, then you shall set out from your place and follow it. 4 Yet there shall be a distance between you and it, about 2,000 cubits in length. Do not come near it, in order that you may know the way you shall go, for you have not passed this way before.” 5 Then Joshua said to the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.” 6 And Joshua said to the priests, “Take up the ark of the covenant and pass on before the people.” So they took up the ark of the covenant and went before the people. (Joshua 3:1–6 ESV)

It’s easy for us to think, most of the time, that we are the doers of our own deeds, the workers of our own wonders, and masters of our own fates. If there’s work to be done, a world to be saved, a victory to be won, then we do it ourselves. With our own hands, our own hearts, and our own minds.

This is a very human thing, this belief. I’m reminded of a joke I heard a Mormon farmer tell at a county planning and zoning commission many years when I worked as a reporter in Northern Utah:

A farmer stands leaning on a fence, admiring his neighbor’s wheat, ripening in the summer sun.

“The Lord has certainly been good to you!” the first farmer said.

The second farmer shook his head and spat angrily.

“The Lord!?! The Lord had nothing to do with it. If it had been up to the Lord, this field would be nothing but weeds and thorns. I did all this work.”

And to the extent that this is true, it is true. My grandfather could never have simply trusted God to yield wheat and barley on the hills of his farm without sowing and tending and reaping himself. As Lutherans, we say God uses “means” — simple material things like bread, wine, and water — to convey the grace and promise of God. While we do believe in the miraculous provision of God — manna to gather in the morning, water from bare rock, thousands fed by five loaves and two fish — we also believe, and preach, that the work of God needs (if that isn’t too strong a term, because I do not like to impose necessity upon God) our hands in order to be incarnate in the world.

But that’s not what’s going on here. This is not about Israel doing the work of God, its own hands acting out the command of God. Joshua walks among the Israelites, preparing them for the battle to come. Make yourselves holy, he says,

… for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.

He further tells Israel, as they are setting out behind the Ark of the Covenant to cross the Jordan River and enter Canaan

“Here is how you shall know that the living God is among you and that he will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, and the Jebusites.” (Joshua 3:10 ESV)

I suspect the task Israel is setting out to start here — war without mercy to a take a promised land already inhabited by a myriad of people — troubles us. It is, to us, the worst of kind of religious violence, genocide sanctioned by God (Deuteronomy 7). We will see, however, that what happens in Joshua and Judges, is not that simple.

Our hands are at work, holding swords and shields, bows and arrows, hacking and piercing and killing. This is holy work, this conquest.

But it is not our work. It is God’s work. And God alone does this work, no matter how we bloody our hands. It’s as if we’re solely along for the ride, pantomiming at war while the real work is being done be a heavenly army in our midst. (Pay attention…) At the beginning of this book, we have the command to fight, to show no mercy, but we also have this prediction of utter failure given to Moses at the end of Deuteronomy, taught to us in song, and the promise that God — and God alone — will do wonders among us.

Will do the hard work so long as we are faithful.

SERMON Second Sunday After Pentecost

I didn’t preach today, but if I had, it would have gone something like this.

Second Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)

  • 1 Kings 8:22–23, 41–43
  • Psalm 96:1–9
  • Galatians 1:1–12
  • Luke 7:1–10

22 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel and spread out his hands toward heaven, 23 and said, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you, in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and showing steadfast love to your servants who walk before you with all their heart…

41 “Likewise, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your name’s sake 42 (for they shall hear of your great name and your mighty hand, and of your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, 43 hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name.” (1 Kings 8:22–23, 41–43 ESV)

This prayer is just one petition in a long prayer Solomon, the Son of David, gives as he dedicates the temple. This house of God that David wanted to build, promised God he would build not long after he become king of all Israel. David thought it was wrong that he should live in a house of cedar and stone while God — present to Israel in the ark it had carried around since being given the teaching at Sinai in the wilderness — “dwelt” only in a tent.

God seemed miffed at David for this promise. “I’ve lived in a tent, wandering with my people, since the day I brought you out of slavery in Egypt. Did I ask you, or anyone else, to build me house? I have been with you, Israel, with you, David, wherever you have gone. I have no need for a house.”

And God promises David — “I will make you a house, and a king from your line, of your descent, shall sit on your throne forever.”

Your descendant shall build me a house, God tells David, but don’t imagine that what you hew and fashion with you own hands (or, an army of conscripted laborers) can hold me. I, the Lord, am the one who really builds. “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever,” God tells David.

So maybe this is why Solomon, who has spent so much building this house of God upon the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite (Araunah in the Kings account), seems to only hope that God will maybe dwell in this house.

12 Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. 13 I have indeed built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.” (1 Kings 8:12–13 ESV)

Note, at this dedication to the temple, Solomon, in his prayer of intercession here, asks the Lord, the God of Israel, to “hear in heaven” (תִּשְׁמַע הַשָׁמַיִם) in each of his petitions.

Today, Solomon prays for the mercy of God upon Israel. He prays for right judgment, forgiveness of sins, abundant rains, relief from famine, and victory in battle when Israel is at war. He prays for the restoration of Israel in defeat, for the return of captives from exile, and for God’s mercy on his people when they sin.

“For there is no one who does not sin,” Solomon prays.

Solomon confesses that even as he has built this great and wonderful house of cedar and stone and bronze and gold where the presence of the Lord shall dwell among God’s people, that God is bigger than this house. That God truly dwells in the heavens, listening from heaven, to prayers from this house, to Israel when it prays toward this house.

And so Solomon also prays for the foreigner who comes to pray to this house as well. He prays that the Lord, the God of Israel, will listen to “all for which the foreigner calls to you.”

That everyone on earth shall know the Lord as Israel knows the Lord — as protector and redeemer, as the one who delivers and blesses.

And so begins the long and strange encounter of the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with those who are not of or from the people God has called out.

Such it is with our gospel reading. Jesus, the God who has condescended from heaven to dwell temporarily with us as one of us, has been invited by a group of Jewish leaders to heal the slave of a Centurion, a senior Roman soldier or even the commander of a Roman garrison. He may be a good guy — the Jewish leaders are rather obsequious in their declarations — but he is still a slave owner and the leader of a military garrison that, if it came to it, would use violence to maintain order.

Roman order. Foreign order.

When we think of foreigners in this context, I suspect we think of curious people who rather meekly and rather quietly pray to God, curious less about God than becoming one of us. After all, they are praying to the same God, are they not? Why wouldn’t they become like us?

But as scripture makes clear, again and again, foreigners often times means enemies. People at war with us, who have no desire to become us or even become like us. Who will not stop fighting us even as they have met and encountered and been healed and redeemed by our God. Who may conquer, and occupy us, and oppress us, and yet … meet redemption and salvation in our God.

When Elisha meets and heals Naaman, the commander of the Syrian Army — Israel has been at war with Syria for many years at that point — he doesn’t demand Naaman convert, or defect, or stop fighting. Naaman does convert, does confess “there is no God in all the earth but in Israel,” and asks God’s forgiveness from Elisha, not for waging war against Israel, but for the future idolatry he will have to commit as a faithful servant of king of Syria. But Naaman never stops being a general in the Syrian Army, never stops serving his king, and likely, never stops waging war on Israel — the very people whose God he confessed.

Whose prophet healed him.

What an ingrate, right?

This is where we are today. Jesus encounters, entirely by proxy (a similarity this story shares with Naaman’s healing), a man who has embraced the God of Israel, has done great things for the faithful people of his community, built a place of meeting and worship and appears to want the best for these people he … occupies and rules over. “Such faith I have not found even in Israel,” Jesus says of this man who is used commanding, who knows and understands authority.

He has faith, this centurion. He trusts Jesus, apparently because he understands — unlike many of Israel — the authority Jesus is under, the authority by which he teaches and heals and casts out demons.

But he never stops being, not even for a minute, a commander in an enemy army, an occupying army. An army Israel seeks to shake off, an army that will later capriciously execute Jesus at the request of the Jerusalem mob. The centurion isn’t just a foreigner — he’s an occupier, an enemy, an oppressor.

We like to think when someone meets Jesus, meets our God, they are changed, converted, they become people like us. They become one of us. This centurion believed in the Lord, the God of Israel, used his power and his position to do what he could for God’s people in the city of Capernaum. But he very likely never stopped being a Roman, a soldier, committed to the order Rome brought and its fearsome price in blood and suffering. He may have become one of God’s people, praying and worshiping and giving thanks, but he never became one of us.

That doesn’t matter. To love enemies, as Jesus commands all who listen just a chapter earlier in Luke’s gospel, is to love flesh and blood human beings who may want and intend for us nothing but harm, to pray for them and do good for them. They may live in our midst and wield great power over us — and use it arbitrarily and often with great cruelty. And yet … they may meet our God, maybe because of our love and our kindness, and come to have great faith and trust in our God, but they may never stop being our enemies even after that. They may never really mean us well, even if they know and fear God, even if they do some good for us.

I know that doesn’t sound right. But this is about the love of God, the love of God shown in, and to, a violent, cruel, deeply unfair and unjust world. If it strikes us as wrong, that God would love our enemies, would heal them and bless them and leave them unchastised to do their horrible work, we should remember — we too are unworthy. We too have sinned.

And we too have been forgiven.

LENT By Grace Alone

1 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin. (Romans 4:1-8 ESV)

What did Abraham believe? A simple promise of children — because Abraham thought his chief servant, Eliezer, would be his heir. Abraham had no children, no one to pass his wealth, his name, his story onto.

But God says no, and pulls Abraham outside. See the stars? You will have more children than you can count. And childless Abraham — desperate, anxious, fearful Abraham — believes. This promise of God.

He will never live to see it. He will die long before his descendants become that numerous. He will father many sons — and probably more than a few daughters too. But he will never to live to see something like that dark sky full of stars. He will never live to see the world full of “his” people.

Abraham trusted God. Trusted a promise. David trusted God, a promise that God forgives our lawless deeds, blots them out, erases them from whatever accounting ledger God keeps.

To live as a people justified by the God who forgives, and covers, who blots out and does not count, means that we must also forgive and cover and blot out and not count each other’s sin. It means we must not continue to hold misdeeds against each other. We are all recipients of a gift, a gift of grace. We have not earned it, no matter what we think. We cannot earn it.

Our redemption is relational. It’s not just a feeling. To be real, we must live it amidst and with other forgiven people. We must forgive as we are forgiven.

And yet, we must also live with the faith of Abraham. The faith that trusts in something it may never see. The world — the church — may never treat us as redeemed people, instead counting our sins against us as indelible marks of “character” that can never be changed. Proof of an essential nature which is so corrupt it is beyond the saving grace of God. We may never live in a world where we are considered forgiven and redeemed people. That doesn’t matter.

We are called to trust. To believe. In the promise of God alone.

Some Thoughts on the ELCA

It’s a been a while, almost two years now, since the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Metro Chicago Synod tossed me out of their candidacy and call process for ordained ministry (okay, truth — the candidacy committee actually did that) because I’d lived a life of “poor choices” and was apparently too much of a risk to be a pastor in the ELCA. That fact that I’m still writing on this subject means it still bothers me, and it still hurts. I’m no stranger to rejection, to not being wanted, but this was immense and shattering.

I’m not sure I’m really over it and I’m not sure I will ever really be over it.

Since then, I’d hoped my book would have propelled me to something else, and created other opportunities for ministry, brought me other kinds of attention, been something I could have leveraged. It hasn’t. I haven’t sold any copies online since late 2015, if Amazon can be believed. The ELCA’s decision has pushed me further into the wilderness, made me more reliant upon God and the kindness of strangers than I ever wanted, and finally forced me to look for work that I can just barely do.

I’m still not entirely sure when the wandering ends.

Am I angry? Maybe. I don’t know. If I am, it’s not the fiery anger of my younger self, an anger that wanted to set the world on fire and dance while it burned. It’s more a sadness — a sadness for myself, yes, because what on earth do I do with myself now? But it’s also a sadness for the ELCA as well, that they have denied themselves my presence in their midst, my gifts, and my witness to a love that is greater than all of us together, a love the reaches through fear, terror, and death to show us what really matters. There’s no guarantee a life as a pastor in the ELCA would have been any better, safer, and more stable. I would likely have been in trouble with someone somewhere — a church council, a bishop’s assistant, somebody. I know I have no choice but to make some kind of future for myself, and some kind of ministry. After all, Jesus did call me, met met in the marketplace while I was minding my own business, reach out his hand, and said: “Follow me.” So, I follow. I wish I knew where.

But I am in a place where I can say something with a rather assured confidence:

I am glad God called me to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. And I’m glad God called me out of it as well.

I’m glad called me into the ELCA because it was ELCA Lutherans who taught me who Jesus was — the crucified and risen Son of God, who gave his life and rose from the dead for the salvation and redemption of God’s people and the entire world. That he lives and reigns and is with us today. That we meet him most when we meet the “least of these” — the weak, the suffering, the frightened, the imprisoned, the sick, the lame, the unwanted, and especially the exploited and the poor. In the “Church of Paul and Prophesy” that I had attended for a bit in high school, I had no idea this risen, breathing, living, suffering, redeeming Jesus even existed, much less in our world. Jesus was always just over the horizon, waiting for the right cloud to ride in on. He wasn’t in our world.

I am grateful for all the Lutherans, beginning with Peace in Alexandria, who saw a calling to be a pastor in me. I am grateful for their love and acceptance, and for the patience some of them had to teach me.

I am grateful for a seminary which, more than anything, taught me the Bible. (Because yes, seminaries in liberal denominations actually do that.) Taught me the story of God’s people Israel — a called out, promised, faithless, failed people who need their God and who have not been abandoned by that God no matter what they’ve done and whatever awful circumstances their faithlessness has subjected them to. That story is my story now, and while I struggle with other, older, far less redemptive understandings of my life, I lean on this story. Because it is true.

Because it is the only real truth I know. And the ELCA taught it to me.

I am grateful to professors at seminary who cared — Kurt Hendel, David Miller, Mark & Rosanne Swanson, Linda Thomas, Cheryl Pero, Ray Pickett — and who, despite not knowing what to make of me at first, did not let go (even if they wanted to). They taught me how not to let go, something I am really learning to do in this ministry I am growing into.

And, strangely enough, I am even grateful for my two miserable candidacy experiences. And even the Metro Chicago bishop, who took me on a second time and gave me a second chance when he didn’t have to.

I am glad God brought me to these people, taught me love and steadfastness and faith and courage and even a little hope.

But … I am also glad God led me out of the ELCA.

Jennifer said recently that Lutherans are a small people, and they prize their smallness. I think that is true. And she looked at me — as an adoring wife does — and said I am too big a person, I have too large a personality, for the comfort of most Lutherans. I don’t mean this as a slight, but it would always be confining, having to meet and being judged by social and cultural expectations that I cannot conform to. Not being able to be something I am expected to be.

Because of this, I would not be free — free to be who and what God actually called me to be. I’m a large enough man that four fatherless kids (three of whom have never physically met me, and the fourth only for a few weeks two-and-a-half years ago) call me “dad.” And they mean it. It’s taken me a long time to realize that some people see a strength in me I don’t really know (or don’t really think) I have — a kind, compassionate, empathetic strength that draws some to it. It’s a strength that finds itself in being for others what I can’t have myself.

And Jennifer thinks a lot of church people especially are frightened of that strength. Of me. Because they don’t know what to make of it.

I think Lutherans are afraid of the world, of its rough edges, of dirt and grit, of strange smells, of babbling tongues they don’t understand, of crowded and uneven streets, and especially of dark alleys where life is lived in shadow. Lutheran good works generally involve cleaning and tidying and organizing and installing bright lights rather than meeting people where they are in chaotic darkness and then grabbing hold of them and not letting go. Because of this, I would, as an ELCA pastor, never be free to walk in that world and to witness to the love of God the way that I am truly called to do. The ELCA, for all its professed theological and social progressivism, is at its heart a very culturally conservative community — Lutherans believe deeply in certain social norms and expectations, in a right order to the world, and they harshly punish those who don’t adhere and do not conform. They may genuinely be a kind and gentle and tolerant people, but as a herd, they have the power to crush and destroy and marginalize just as easily as anyone. And they do. Far too easily and far too much.

ELCA Lutherans love, but almost always it’s love in box, love that is bounded, love that knows its limits, love that is well ordered and not allowed to overflow and make a mess. It is love that knows exactly who it is for, and why, and how. In the ELCA, love is only for certain people, who behave themselves, are good, and have the foresight to be born into the right, well-ordered, bourgeois circumstances. I said this in my book, and I will repeat it here — Lutherans may preach unearned grace, but their lived confession emphatically states, “If you truly need God’s grace, you clearly have not earned it.”

And I clearly have not earned God’s grace. Not enough for the ELCA.

So, here I am, still in the wilderness, still wandering, still wondering where Jennifer and I will lay our heads. Knowing that if I am called to pastor, I will have to start my own church — an independent Lutheran denomination. So independent, that it’s just me right now. (Well, and Jennifer too.) Which, on the one hand, is very unlutheran (where is the good order in that?), and on the other hand, is about as Lutheran as you can possibly get. (Here’s hoping I meet my Frederick the Wise sometime soon?)1

I am grateful … for all of it. Even the awful parts. Even when I weep and wail and bemoan my utter and complete failure as a human being. Which has been a lot, recently.

Glad I was called to the ELCA because I was taught how to love and be loved. And who really loved me, whose work was in those human hands.

And glad I have been called out. So I can really, truly, courageously love as Jesus has called me to love. As I have been taught to love.

  1. Actually, a lot of people along the way have sheltered us and cared for us and fed us and even come to love us. Someday, I will properly thank you all.  ↩︎

A Tunic of Distinctions

I’ve been doing a little research for a long essay on rape in the Bible (yes, you read that right — I do not shy away from difficult, painful, or even horrible subjects) when I came across something very interesting.

In 2 Samuel 13 begins to horrific story of Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar, and his half-brother Absolom’s decision to avenge that rape. David is king at the time, Absalom basically leads a coup — which eventually fails — against his father (and Amnon’s father, and Tamar’s father too) because he is very angry over David’s refusal to defend Tamar’s honor.

After Amnon abandons his half-sister (remember, half-sister marriage is against the law, but Deuteronomy 22 deals with how rape is to be settled), the Bible describes Tamar this way:

Now she was wearing a long robe with sleeves [כּתֹנֶת פַּסּים], for thus were the virgin daughters of the king dressed. So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her.  And Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the long robe that she wore. And she laid her hand on her head and went away, crying aloud as she went. (2 Samuel 13:18-19 ESV)

A “robe with long sleeves,” כּתֹנֶת פַּסּים kthuneth fasim, literally a “tunic of distinctions.” (Think flair?) Otherwise known as a robe of many colors. Remember who else wears such a garment in scripture?

Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors [כּתֹנֶת פַּסּים]. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him. (Genesis 37:3-4 ESV)

My computer is not behaving properly today, and is doing some weird formatting things with Hebrew. But the coat Jacob makes for his son Joseph is a כְּתֹ֥נֶת פַּסִּֽים, the same kind of garment that Tamar is said to wear in 2 Samuel.

I find it interesting here that the garment in question — a tunic of dinstinctions — is described in 2 Samuel as being the kinds of garment worn by the “virgin daughters of the king.” She tears that garment, in mourning (garments in the Bible are frequently torn in mourning, guilt, and anguish) but also probably in protest of her situation. She has been violated — there is no mistake about that.

Granted, many centuries have passed between when Joseph wore his tunic of distinctions and Tamar wore hers, and so they may have had very different meanings. But what would readers and listeners at the time of the Bible’s compilation have understood? The words are the same.

Consider. Joseph doesn’t work in the field with his brothers. The garment his father made for him likely makes that impossible — if it’s anything like a Saudi thaub, then it’s very difficult to do anything resembling manual labor in such a garment. If keeping the sheep is man’s work, Joseph isn’t doing it. It is clear that God loves Joseph with a “steadfast love” (Gen. 39:31), and that is manifest by the jailer elevating Joseph to the position of trustee, “in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison.” (Gen. 39:22) But Joseph isn’t the kind of son a lot of fathers might be proud of.

Yes, God loves and favors and propsers Joseph. But he sounds like a whiny little know-it-all and apple polisher to me. Not someone I would ever trust. Or even like. Because he’s entirely too comfortable with people in power and cozies up to them too easily. I’d constantly be afraid he’d tattle on me for something, deserved or not.

So what does it mean that this man is wearing a coat, made by his father, that will later in scripture be the kind of garment that specifically denotes “the virgin daughters” of King David? And that in this, he is his father’s favorite son?

I suspect it means that Joseph is something of a sissy. He’s one of those men who are not particularly comfortable in the world of men, doing the things men are supposed to do, in the rough and tumble way men often do things. I’m not making any suggestions about Joseph’s sexual preferences or orientation — scripture doesn’t, and he eventually marries an Egyptian woman and fathers two children. But he is different, a misfit, not quite what someone who will save the world from famine ought to look like.

And that’s the point of scripture. So many youngest sons, men who would otherwise be ignored or consigned to ignominy, from Jacob to Judah to David, end up being significant figures in scripture. I beleive the Bible understands our societies and our nature as human beings — oldest sons inherit, are the heroes, and we look to strong, virtuous, and decisive men to save us from our enemies and even ourselves. We cannot help being that way.

But God is not bound by our schemes. God uses the liars, the cheaters, the sissies, the misfits, the sinners, to do the essential work of saving God’s people and building God’s kingdom. Almost none of the men of scripture are heroes in the way we might understand them, as “action figures” who do mighty deeds, have no weaknesses, and never sin. I don’t want to be like Joseph, and I really don’t want to know anyone like him, either. But he saves the world. He saves Israel.

So, we live in tension with the narrative. I’m no fan of natural law, but perhaps that “law” which is written on human hearts, and guides so many of our thoughts, feelings, and deeds, is supposed to rest next to the revelation of scripture and they are to sit together, unresolved and unresolvable. Our desire for a well-ordered world alongside our understanding in revelation that God works with whatever we have at hand. Our faith in power and hope for justice and vengeance alongside the story that tells us that weakness is frequently more powerful — and a lot more righteous — than strength.

Mostly, I think, it is our desire to live in accordance with what we understand as the laws and order of God, and God’s willingness to meet us in our sinfulness and disorder, and remake the world with us. Even if we aren’t entirely right with God.

This means that one is not mutually exclusive of the other. I am a partisan of grace, as opposed to order, because the order that so many envision for the world — whether it is a conservative or progressive or even revolutionary order — simply does not include me. No matter how that order is constituted, it wounds and breaks so many people, accidentally and carelessly, and frequently on purpose. And because my gift is to meet those wounded and broken by the order of the world (however that order is constituted), and show them that love — God’s real, self-giving love — remakes them in their brokenness, binds up their wounds, and allows them to witness to that very same love.

Apostles -or- The Ones Who Are Sent

So, it is back to the Bible today.

Some time ago, I noticed there was a difference between all of the different ways one follows Jesus. There are the crowds, who press in on Jesus, follow him everywhere, do not give him a moment’s peace. They are the people who Jesus has truly come for — they are the people Jesus heals and casts demons out of.

It is from the crowds that some of Jesus’ more “aggressive” followers — the lame, the lepers, the crippled, the blind who cry out, the demon possessed, the centurion of Matthew 8, the rich young man of Luke 18 — come to him and ask to be made whole, to be healed, and to find out what must be done to inherit eternal life. But they come from the crowds, from those who see Jesus, see and know that he is the Son of God incarnate, that he does the work of God, and they respond.

This is faithfulness. And if this is what brings people to Jesus, then all the good. Because these crowds who cannot give Jesus a moment’s peace, who proclaim him “Son of David” one moment and a blasphemer deserving of death not long after, these crowds are the people Jesus came to find. So, when someone is drawn to Jesus, and chooses to follow Jesus, this is good.

But there are those Jesus also calls to follow. People who are minding their own business, bothering no one when Jesus steps into their lives and commandeers them. “Follow me,” he says to Matthew/Levi in each of the three synoptic gospels (Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32; John 1:35-51 bears some similarities), and Matthew/Levi follows:

27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. (Luke 5:27-28 ESV)

His calling of disciples (Matthew 4:18-22, Mark 1:16-20, Luke 5:1-11; again, John 1:35-51 tells a similar but somewhat different story) is not a matter of people choosing to follow Jesus. His disciples are not the crowds. Jesus finds them — almost exclusively at work — and calls them.

“Follow me,” he says.

And they drop everything. And follow.

This too is great faithfulness. But it is a different kind of faithfulness. In the synoptic gospels, the crowds see Jesus and know, “God is at work!” But for the disciples, they don’t see Jesus at work that way. They don’t hunger for the justice and mercy and redeeming work of God in the same way that the crowds do.

Instead, God sees them at work, minding their own business, and meets them. And calls them. Because they are not the people to be healed. Or made whole. Or even have their demons cast out (assuming they have any, which is unlikely, but you never know). Because they are called to help Jesus do that work.

In the feeding miracles, the disciples are anxious, because feeding the crowds in the wilderness is a logistical nightmare, one they have not prepared for. In commanding them, “You give them something to eat” (Luke 9:13), and then blessing and breaking the bread (foreshadowing the final supper that will come), Jesus is giving them all the instruction and preparation they will need to feed the crowds — their meager supplies and the blessing and presence of Christ.

It is a lesson that the disciples have to learn over and over again: what they have at hand, and the blessing of Jesus, is all they need to care for and feed the crowds who hunger for the redeeming presence and boundless mercy of God.

But there is one more distinction. Because not all disciples are apostles. Matthew puts it this way:

1 And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. 2 The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. (Matthew 10:1-4 ESV)

Mark describes it like this:

13 And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. 14 And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach 15 and have authority to cast out demons. 16 He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); 17 James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); 18 Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot, 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. (Mark 3:13-19 ESV)

And Luke relates the account this way:

12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. (Luke 6:12-16 ESV)

It’s funny, but Mark’s account of this is actually the longest, and it actually has a detail that neither Matthew nor Luke have — it refers to the twelve apostles as “those whom he desired.”

The Matthew account is followed immediately by Jesus sending the twelve out specifically to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” to proclaim the kingdom, heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons. (It’s the beginning of a very long speech of Jesus’, so we don’t really know how this mission goes, though we can guess from what comes next — disciples of John the Baptist coming to Jesus and asking him, “are you the one who is to come?” So, we can guess the disciples were successful in carrying out their charge.)

Jesus calls disciples in Mark and then goes straight home. Where he’s mobbed by crowds while his family in Nazareth are convinced that Jesus is completely out of his mind. Being the Son of God will do that with the family, I suppose.

The Luke account is followed by Jesus ministering to crowds throughout Judea, Samaria, and what is now southern Lebanon. And then he gives Luke’s version of “the sermon on the mount” (called “the sermon on the plain” from 6:17, “And he came down with them [the apostles] and stood on a level place.” So, the calling of the apostles in Luke is followed by the Beatitudes.

Luke has Jesus dispatch the apostles in Chapter 9, giving them the “power and authority to over all demons and to cure diseases” and to proclaim the kingdom of God and heal the sick. Instead of John the Baptist, though, in Luke, it’s Herod who hears of this (because John is dead), and who wants to see Jesus. (But he doesn’t, apparently.) And this is followed by an apostolic report, and the feeding of the five thousand.

I’m not entirely clear if apostle and disciple are interchangeable here. I suspect if they were, then we wouldn’t have two distinct terms — disciple (one who learns) and apostle (one who is sent). Clearly, one can be a disciple without being an apostle. Can one be an apostle without being a disciple? (Probably not.) Can one be an apostle without being called by Jesus in the flesh? St. Paul clearly sees himself as an apostle — one who is sent — but whether that means the same thing as it does when Matthew, Mark, and Luke use it, I do not know.

(I think it would be tremendously presumptuous to claim, in this day and age, to be an apostle. I am not claiming that title.)

In the great commission, as related at the end of Matthew, Jesus speaks of disciples, and not apostles. So, it may be without a physical Jesus calling “those whom he desired” that apostleship is impossible.

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations [μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη], baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 ESV)

There is, however, still a distinction between the crowds — those who follow Jesus of their own will — and disciples — who are called by Jesus to follow. It’s an important distinction, one that gets lost in arguments over just how much human will is involved when we discern God present as Christ somehow in our midst. I generally think that argument is a pointless one, because it tries to exclude at least one of these ways of encountering God. If we do all the choosing, then what of Jesus’s call to Matthew/Levi, “follow me”? And if we do none of the choosing, what then of the crowds, and those who emerge from the crowds, who have a vastly different experience of Jesus, as someone they come to?

And what does it mean for the church if this is an important distinction that was supposed to persist? What if there is, always has been, and always will be, a distinction between the crowds who follow and the disciples who are called to follow?

I, of course, default to the irresistible call of Jesus, Follow me. But then, I would. I have learned to respect, however, the notion that some — many, perhaps — choose to follow Jesus of their own accord. Indeed, discipleship clearly seems to be a minority option, something only a few would experience. It speaks to the abiding “unfairness” of God. Not everybody gets treated the same. Not everyone gets called the same. Not everyone even gets loved the same. To be called like this isn’t necessarily a good thing, either — for many of the first disciples, it eventually led to suffering and death.

There are followers of Jesus, and there those called to follow. And they aren’t necessarily the same people.

But all are beloved of God.

Grace Incarnate

Yes, I know, in most of the civilized church world, today was Ascension Sunday, in which the church marks the moment when the resurrected Jesus returned to His Father in Heaven (Mark 16:19-20, Luke 24:50-53, and Acts 1:6-11) after spending a little quality time with the disciples, eating breakfast with them and walking through walls. Continue reading