Guess Who’s Coming to Repent and be Baptized…

Jennifer and I were worshiping this morning as what we have taken to calling The Church of St. John-in-the-Wilderness, a good Anglican name attached to a number of churches, though the first one that comes up online is somewhere in India.

Right now, it’s just Jennifer and me, using the 1979 version of the Book of Common Prayer, a slowly expanding of form two of Holy Communion, which we celebrate at home (though honestly, I lobbied for worshippers at Starbucks this morning). We call ourselves Anglicans on purpose. The Lutherans have wounded us too much to go back, we’re not Catholic, and we have yet to find a church here in Moses Lake that takes worship — liturgy — seriously.

Four praise songs and a long, meandering sermon that is more conservative political piety do not a proper worship service make. Nor does the formless, shapeless and very unserious semi-liturgy we’ve experienced in far too many churches in the last few years.

Honestly, the only places where I’ve felt liturgy is taken seriously are Orthodox churches and the Latin Mass. And several of my friends’ ELCA parishes.

At any rate, we’re self-proclaimed Anglicans right now (and not Episcopalians, for reasons I will keep to myself for the time being), until some bishop somewhere decides to follow the lead of two ELCA bishops and toss our asses out as well.

At any rate, I was reading the texts for the Second Sunday of Advent this morning, and noticed two things.

First, in the Gospel reading.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? …” (Matthew 3:7 ESV)

So okay, John the Baptist is in the midst of the wilderness, hanging out on the banks of the River Jordan baptizing the rabble when who shows up but “many of the Pharisees and Sadducess?” The religious establishment, following the people out to this wilderness, to take a dip in the water and repent of their sins.

They were coming to be baptized. To repent. I’d never noticed that before.

We don’t know what John the bug-eating, rambunctious holy mess tells the ordinary folks coming to him from Jerusalem and Judea and all around the Jordan, when they show up. But in Matthew’s account, he has special words for the religious leaders. “Who invited you?” he demands, as if somehow they hadn’t been told about to this repentance party at the river on purpose.


He then makes a special demand of them, these uninvited religious leaders. “It isn’t enough merely to speak words as you get ready to go under the water, or live in the confidence that merely being descended from Abraham is enough. Bear fruit.”

To the religious leaders, he tells them — repent, and then live like you mean it. He doesn’t deliver this same warning to the ordinary folks who come the repent, at least not in Matthew’s account. He may very well be the kind of stern, crazy man you cross to the other side of the street to avoid (he always come across that way to me), but from this, it seems he baptized all who came without much question.

And even here, after he warns the religious leaders of his age to take their repentance seriously, and live like they really are penitent, John appears to baptize them.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11 ESV)

When we talked about this at worship, Jennifer looked at me and said, “Even religious leaders. We need to remember that.” Because right now, she and I have almost no patience for religious leaders — bishops and pastors and the like — and I’d just as soon as consign them outer darkness or the fires of Gehenna or some deep, dark part of Sheol as think of them twice.

God’s grace is also for the powerful, for those who have wronged as much as those they have wronged. I think John is right to demand of these religious leaders that their repentance manifest itself tangibly in their lives in ways it may not have to in anyone not given the responsibility of religious leadership.

Which leads me to the second thing I noticed, in the epistle reading, which wasn’t technically part of the reading for the week, but I read it anyway.

1 We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. 3 For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” (Romans 15:1-3 ESV)

I love this, this talk of obligation and self-surrender. I love this because it’s hard and I hate it. I don’t like bearing with the failings of the weak, and there are times when I’m not terribly patient for the failing of those around me. (My poor wife bears far too much of the brunt of this…) I’d rather yell at people to keep up with me, rather than have to slow down and walk with them only as fast as they can.

And the thing that makes this especially tough is that all too often it feels like no one bears with my failings. No one slows down to walk with me, no one builds me up. Certainly not all those rotten bishops and pastors who have glared at me in uncomprehending judgment at who and what I am and sent me away without so much as a “can we be with you and at least listen to you?”.

In fact, I wouldn’t be a self-proclaimed Anglican, leader of the smallest denomination (two) in North America, if the Pharisees and Sadducees I had encountered had somehow actually lived out their repentance in a meaningful way.

I want to live in a world of reciprocity — do unto others as they do unto me. But that’s not what Jesus says, and that’s not what Paul is writing to the church at Rome here. There is no reciprocity in this relationship we have with God — we bring nothing to God and can do nothing for God — and so we model that lack of reciprocity. We listen to those who will not listen to us. (Try this with an abused, autistic 13-year-old girl sometime… ) We walk with those who will not walk with us. We comfort those who cannot and will not comfort us. We love those who will not love us back.

I can no more live in a loveless world than you can, and I know that if I give of myself like this, there will soon be nothing left of me. Our very humanity needs and demands reciprocity, and I need to remember the times when I took and did not give, talked and did not listen, received comfort but did not return it.

But at the heart of this relationship God has with us is self-surrender, in which power and privilege and position are given up, in which the strong use their strength to bolster rather than brutalize the weak. It’s hard, and most days I really hate it.

It’s what God does for us, though.

SERMON No Gospel But Christ’s

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

Third Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)

  • 1 Kings 17:17–24
  • Psalm 30
  • Galatians 1:11–24
  • Luke 7:11–17

11 For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. 12 For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. 20 (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me. (Galatians 1:11–24 ESV)

Who is this Paul character, and why should we listen to him?

After all, he’s new at this, just started preaching the good news of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, and he doesn’t possess the proper pedigree. He didn’t hang out with Jesus, or Christ’s followers, he wasn’t there when Jesus preached, or healed, or raised anyone from the dead, or when Jesus had that last supper with his followers in that rented room, and he certainly wasn’t threatened later that night he was betrayed, handed over, tired and tortured and put to death.

He didn’t stand there at the foot of the cross, linger as darkness descended upon the land, stare up in uncomprehending anguish as Jesus breathed his last, painfully exhaling “it is finished” as the nails ripped his flesh.

This Paul wasn’t there to take Jesus down, wrap him in a shroud, didn’t donate his own tomb for Jesus’ burial. He didn’t weep and mourn that sabbath, wasn’t with the women or Peter or the other disciples when they eagerly and strangely told us the tomb was empty.

He certainly wasn’t with us in the days following, when we were scared, and locked the doors, when we wondered if that horrible that thing that happened to him … could happen to us? Did he break bread with us when we were frightened, when we were lost?

No, he did not.

In fact, this Paul was one of the reasons we were cowering in the darkness, behind locked doors, frightened and uncertain and wondering what happens next.

And now here he is, preaching Jesus!

I’m certain some of us are glad, and are, in fact, glorifying God. He did persecute the church. Persecute us. I’m certain some of us lost loved ones and friends because of him. We all lost brothers and sisters in the faith. This is truly the grace of God!

But I suspect others of us are sitting angry and silent. Who does he think he is, this upstart, this convert, who didn’t take any of the risks we took, who didn’t share anything with those of us who were there from the beginning, who didn’t learn what he needed to know from those of us who were with Jesus — who knew Jesus — but claims, rather strangely, to have received this gospel “through a revelation” directly from Jesus Christ.

Who spent some time in the desert meditating and considering this revelation.

Uh-huh, sure he did. Yeah, right, as if he was struck blind on the road to Damascus. Look, there’s only one gospel, and it’s ours. We possess it, we curate it, we preach it, we teach it. We control who, and how, the Son reveals himself to anyone. It’s ours, and it doesn’t belong to any upstarts who come wandering in from just anywhere — but especially those who’ve spent serious time persecuting and killing us, breathing threats and murder against us, terrorizing us.

This gospel, it’s ours. Ours.

I don’t know what we’re going to do with this man Paul, especially as he claims authority to preach and teach to the gentiles — gentiles! If God had intended to call them to follow, chosen them to be part of his people, God would have! Yes, God has occasionally reached out, fed and healed and even raised the dead of faithful non-Israelites, but including them as the people of God? Really?

We’ve not licensed Paul. We’ve not endorsed or approved him. And we need to reign him in, somehow.

We’re going to have a lot of work to undo, a lot of letters to write, a lot of pastoral visits to make, a lot of wrongs to right. Because this guy Paul, he’s been busy. Scribbling and scribbling, keeping the Roman Imperial Postal Service quite occupied with his correspondence. I mean, we have to do this, right? We’ve got to make sure the correct gospel is preached by the right people to the right people.

What gospel am I talking about? Well, I mean what God has done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. How we met God in Jesus, and how his dying and rising has defeated death and sin, and given us new life, risen life, eternal life, to love our neighbor as Jesus loves us, to care for the poor, to welcome strangers, to heal the sick and even raise the dead! That’s the gospel we’ve been given, and the gospel we’ve got to protect and defend!

Does Paul preach that gospel? Does he teach it to the churches he writes to? Does he now live for Jesus the way we live for Jesus?

… He does? Really? Really? Are you sure? REALLY?!?

Well, then I guess maybe we can live with him. Maybe. Praise be to God, and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, who delivers us from the present evil age, and to whom belongs the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Wait… those are his words too? Damn…

LENT No Partiality

1 Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. 2 We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. 3 Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well- doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self- seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality. (Romans 2:1–11 ESV)

At the beginning of his letter to the church at Rome, Paul writes about people who do “not honor him as God or give thanks” and because of that they traded the truth of God for a lie and were given up to dishonorable passions — becoming gossipers, liars, haters of God, murderers, mothers rapers, and father stabbers. (And father rapers!) Despite knowing the will of God for their lives and for the world, they have been given over — and have given themselves over — to sinful, lustful, disordered lives.

And they deserve to die.

While often quoted as God’s judgment on certain kinds of lifestyles, the first chapter of Romans appears largely to be a setup for what we have today. For Paul, in pointing out the sinfulness of some, lets his readers know — “You have no excuse.”

For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. 

It seems to me Paul is telling a group of people who perceive themselves as sinless (or at least in a position to judge and condemn the sinfulness of others) because of who they are that no, God doesn’t favor a person or a people merely because of their identity. God cares how we act. God cares how we treat each other and ourselves.

And God is no respecter of persons merely because someone is chosen by God. The one who is chosen of God is not entitled to sin (and the list of sins Paul deals with in chapter one are long, and don’t merely involve sex) and then judge others.

Of course, many Christians live in a world with a hierarchy of sin. Some is worse than others. To condemn the sodomite and the catamite, while living “foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” lives seems acceptable, even proper, maybe because Paul makes such a big deal out of living with “dishonorable passions” and not so much out of being greedy, lying, murderous bastards. (Rome was filled with them too.) But while Paul does point out, and does condemn (and perhaps does so ironically as part of his setup), he also reminds his readers — and us — that we don’t have that luxury. We are sinners too. Because the whole point of the kindness and grace of God is repentance. To get us to change our lives. And not worry so much about how others live.

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.

LENT We Who Are Nothing

17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:17–21 ESV)

“Our lowly body.” Plural. Not “my lowly body” or “each believer’s lowly body,” but “our lowly body” — τὸ σῶμα τῆς ταπεινώσεως ἡμῶν — the body of lowliness or humiliation.

Paul is not speaking of personal or individual transformation here, not describing yours or my best or most wonderful selves, but of the church, the assembly, the εκκλησια. We, the called-out people of god, are transformed, resurrected, made glorious in the way Jesus was transfigured while on the mountaintop with Moses with Elijah or when he walked out of the tomb. We are changed together. And it is in being together, gathering together, breaking bread and drinking wine together, proclaiming the truth of Christ and bearing witness to his love for the world together, that we are transformed. From humiliation to glory. Raised high.

But the power … oh, but the power that transforms us is horrible indeed. For it is the Cross that transforms us. Just as Christ was, we the church are raised high to a place of “honor” and “glory” on an instrument of torture and death. A method of execution that insists all look upon it and tremble before the power of the people — and their state — that so willingly terrorizes and kills like this. To hang on that Cross, to die such a death, is the very thing that enables Jesus to “subject all things to himself.” The world, and all that is in it, is his. Because he died to it.

Because he died for it.

To be an enemy of the Cross at first blush seems an embrace of life. Who wants a painful, tortured, humiliating death? What power can there possibly be in that? What glory? How does the Cross transform us into anything except failures, bloody and cold to the touch at the end of the day?

But such is the Cross of Christ that his death redeems the whole and makes possible eternal life. We who fail have succeeded. And we who die will live. Forever.

We who are nothing, were nothing, had nothing, become everything. Because Jesus reached out and commanded us: “Follow me.”

This is What the Wrath of God Looks Like

Today is that day set aside in the church’s calendar to mark the conversion of Saul — his being struck down by Jesus on the way to Damascus to persecute the church, and instead becoming the risen Christ’s “chosen instrument” for brining the reconciling promise of God to the Gentiles. As Paul later described his own conversion in Galatians, chapter 1:

11 For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. 12 For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. 20 (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me. (Galatians 1:11–24 ESV)

I like the version of the story Luke tells in Acts 9 (and has Paul retell again in Acts 22 and 26) because it has drama. Jesus, reaching out, knocking Saul blind and senseless, and speaking to him — “Rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” — and putting Saul in a position of utter dependence on the people he had come to persecute.

And putting them in a position of complete power. All they had in common between them was Jesus.

The conversion of Saul is a new thing. Once, the wrath of God came upon a sinful world, flooding it completely and killing nearly everyone in it. Then it came upon a sinful city in the form of fire from heaven, destroying the entire city and nearly all who lived in it. Then the vengeance of God came as the armies of Assyria and Babylon, to fight, to defeat, to conquer, and to exile God’s wayward, faithless, and disobedient people.

But now, God’s vengeance is something different. Something new. It isn’t defeat, destruction, and exile. It’s resurrection. It’s conversion. Saul, the enemy of the church, fierce opponent of Christ, is met in the midst of his “ordinary” life (just as Peter and his brothers, or Matthew/Levi, met Jesus as they were simply going about their ordinary business) and yanked from it. He is now Christ’s servant, to do Christ’s business, at Christ’s bidding.

Jesus even seems to reassure Ananias that Saul “will suffer much,” though it will no longer be a punishment for wrongdoing, but a real consequence of preaching the Good News of Jesus in a world hungry to hear it. Because the powers that be don’t want this Good News preached.

So Paul will suffer. And die.

But not as an enemy of God. Not as a consequence of his sin. Rather, he will die a beloved disciple. With the rising of Christ, suffering and death goes from a sign of the wrath of God to a mark of God’s favor. It is no longer a consequence of our faithlessness, but of our faithfulness.

Resurrection and conversion, not death and destruction, are God’s final words on our sin. On our rage. On our anger. Our murderous desires. Jesus went there first, and invited us to follow.

Some he called softly and tenderly. Maybe even many. But some, he struck blind, and drug them (okay, us) kicking and screaming all the way to the foot of the cross, to the empty tomb. Where we could see what a love that claims us utterly and completely really looks like.

And how it is little different than wrath. And because of that, God’s wrath does’t matter anymore.

All that matters is God’s all-consuming, all-claiming, and all-encompassing love.

The Blind Spot in My Thinking

I have to confess, as a theologian and pastor, that I’m not as knowledgable about Paul’s writings — and his overall thinking — as I probably should be. Mostly, this is because it is hard for me to read Paul as story, and while I am not opposed to right doctrine (orthodoxy) – indeed, I believe confessing the right revealed truth is essential, otherwise we are not Christians — I’m always suspicious once Paul’s writings get tossed around because it seems like too many Christians seem to espouse a salvation through faith that makes our belief and assent to a set of ideas and propositions as essential to our salvation.

Basically, the faith that saves us is ours. In my mind, that makes saving faith the kind of works that Protestants so decry.

There is some beautiful writing in Paul’s letters, but I still find them troublesome reading because I still have difficulty finding the story. It doesn’t help that with much of what Paul writes, we only have half a conversation — that is, we done have any letters written to him, or any dialogue. So it’s hard to parse what Paul is saying sometimes. At least for me. It doesn’t help that many Christians treat Paul as a kind-of lawgiver, telling us the things we need to do in order to get right with God, follow Jesus properly, and be the people of God.

That said, I have learned to read Numbers and Leviticus in some kind of context and see them full of grace. I ought to be able to do the same with Paul, and I’m not quite sure yet why I can’t.

So Andrew Wilson has done me something of a favor in his review of Doug Campbell’s book The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul and he asks a question few Christians I suspect will get at first read — do you read Paul like an Arian?

Arianism, as Campbell understands it, is essentially about foundationalism, in contrast to Athanasianism, which is about apocalypticism. By this he means that Arius begins with the foundations we have in human experience and then works upwards to make judgments about the divine nature (hence “foundationalist”), whereas Athanasius urges the impossibility of doing things this way round, and the necessity of starting with revelation from God (hence “apocalyptic”). For Campbell, all mainstream contemporary readings of Romans, and particularly Romans 1–4, are foundationalist, and hence Arian. He thinks they should be apocalyptic, and hence Athanasian.

Athanasius of Alexandria was an early leader of the church (fourth century mostly) from whom we get the long and unwieldy Athanasian Creed. It is included in the Book of Concord along with the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, and ends with the rather austere statement, “This is the catholic faith; a person cannot be saved without believing this firmly and faithfully.” I’ve not studied that creed as much as I should, and I know I need to. So, I’ll just let this sit for a bit.

Anyway, Wilson writes of the Athanasian approach to reading Romans:

In contrast, Campbell proposes an Athanasian reading of Romans. Rather than beginning with natural reason and working upwards to God, he argues that Paul does not envisage anybody being able to relate to God without his prior apocalyptic activity in coming downwards; that is, his revelation of himself through Jesus Christ in the gospel. Athanasianism relies totally on revelation in Christ, and sees God as acting unconditionally and benevolently towards humans while still enslaved and unable to believe: “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The atonement, in Romans, is not a penal act which freely choosing moral agents can decide to accept or reject, but an Exodus act which liberates those who could do nothing to help themselves (and hence there is no endorsement in Paul of the imperial iustitia, and the spectre of Constantinianism, that Campbell suspects to be at the root of the judicial-punitive view). God steps down and delivers us in Jesus, and there are no strings of contractual obligation (like faith) attached. Faith is not a condition of salvation, in fact; for Campbell, sola fide is a vulgar Protestant idea, since it is so based on the two contracts, and we should instead think of sola Jesus. We bring nothing to the party, he argues, not even faith. We are delivered solely and entirely by grace.

The argument for this reading of Romans as the best one takes a thousand pages of densely argued prose, and summarising it adequately here would be impossible. For Campbell, the chief strengths of his proposal are exegetical (he discusses over thirty exegetical weakness of the contractual-foundationalist view, which throughout he labels Justification Theory, that are resolved using his approach), and theological (since it views God as the indiscriminate dispenser of grace to all, rather than the contractual pedant who needs us to chip in our works and/or faith to experience his deliverance). His strongest point is that it provides a satisfactory answer to the age-old question about the relationship between Romans 1–4 and 5–8, an answer which Justification Theory in all its forms has so far failed to give (is God judge, or liberator? Is unbelieving humanity able to choose to follow God, or dead in sin? Is the Christ-event judicial, or participationist? Is salvation conditional or unconditional? And so on). But for a detailed explanation of why his view fits the evidence better than the alternatives, you’d have to get his book.

It does sound like a book worth reading. Whether it makes Paul any more story for me I do not know. (Again, I have come to love Leviticus and Numbers, and they aren’t really story — well, Numbers is eventually — so I ought to be able to love Paul’s writings as well.) I also need to spend some more time with Athanasius and his creed, if for no other reason than I want to start a worship community and use the Book of Concord, especially the creeds and the two catechisms, as foundations for our shared confession.

I Can Do All Things…

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been gaining a steady trickle of Twitter followers — not many, I’ve not topped 200 yet — and a fair number of them are Christian. Mostly conservatives, but a few of the inspirational, power-of-positive thinking school. (Not that these are mutually exclusive.)

Such thinking tends to give me hives. I’m not much of a positive thinker, though I have learned over the last few years (including a very intensive two-week tenure on Instapray) that often times, the people “thinking positive thoughts” are frequently those going through very difficult times. Me? I see a value in suffering and lament, and tend to view God more as a companion — one who suffers with us — than as one who solves all suffering or provides comfort. God’s presence with me in my suffering is comfort enough for me.

But I don’t challenge the faithfulness of people who publicly express these kinds of sentiments anymore. Because I don’t know what they are going through. Because I don’t know what they need to hear God telling them.

For example. A couple of weeks ago, when I was feeling a little anxious, I was futzing around on the guitar, a melody came to me, and pretty quickly wrote a song from bits and pieces of the Gospel of Mark. The main message was, “do not be afraid,” something I clearly needed to hear. Not just in that moment, but always.

At any rate, I do not know quite where they are.

But there is a bit of scripture I see quoted that still gives me hives. Someone I follow on Twitter, someone of the “think positive” school I suspect, recently posted the following:

Stop saying “I can’t.” #Philippians 4:13

And that’s okay, so far as it goes. But I keep seeing Philippians 4:13 — “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” — as a kind of incantation that says, “I can do anything so long as I have Jesus with me.” Leap tall buildings, get an A on that exam, close the deal, whatever.

This is where it’s important to read the whole passage. Because Paul isn’t quite saying that:

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:10-13 ESV)

There is more, and Paul acknowledges in the following verses that the church at Philippi has shared “my trouble” with Paul, and has provisioned him with “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”

But the point leading up to the verse is about circumstances, not accomplishment. “For I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” This is worth learning — I haven’t learned it, as much of my whining on this blog attests to. Paul tells the Philippians that he has “learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” He has learned how to deal with his circumstances regardless of what they are.

Because he has the strength of Christ to see the gift and blessing in everything he has. Whether he has plenty or little, he knows he has the power to praise God for whatever he receives. More importantly, he knows that God provides for him. Everything is from God. He is utterly dependent upon the grace of God, and that grace expressed through the goodwill of those he visits, teaches, preaches, and writes to. And he knows this.

I sense in Paul a kind of a grateful presumption as he writes this. He is grateful for everything he has received. He truly is. But he also expects — no, he knows that God will provide for him. Because God promised, and God’s promises never fail.

This isn’t quite positive thinking, a cure for “I can’t.” This is bigger than defeating “no.” It’s living into the promise of God in difficult circumstances, knowing that God will provide. It says “yes” when I want to say “no, I cannot go on.” But it doesn’t say “yes” when I say, “no, I cannot jump that tall building” or “no, I will not get that job” or “no, I won’t win an award for my book.” I know Paul says all things πάντα, but this isn’t about magical or heroic accomplishments — it’s about endurance. It’s about knowing that whether you have much, or have little, whether you are held in high regard, or no regard at all, everything is from God, and each is a thing to be endured. Which means that neither is a natural condition. Neither is to be expected.

And neither is to be feared.

I wish I had this kind of faith. I know how dependent upon the goodwill of others Jennifer and I have been for the last couple of years. I don’t like this dependence, I don’t like being a perpetual guest. I don’t like daily bread, knowing that just about every difficult situation I’ve found myself in has gotten barely resolved for the good at the very last moment.

And yet, I’m slowly learning to live into this with what I call this faithful presumptiveness, that the provision of God will be there exactly when Jennifer and I need it most. It still doesn’t feel right. I still don’t feel like I’m earning any of this. And I so want to earn my bread by the sweat of my brow, and have a home of my own, so I can at some point be a host. And not a guest.

But as Paul has said, I know how to be brought low. Oh God, but I have been brought low. But that is not all there has been either. I know how to abound. I know how to see abundance is simple and meagre gifts. In fact, a big possibility is looming on the horizon — I will be appearing on TBN’s Praise The Lord show next week — that could make all that possible. I hope. I pray.

Once, long before seminary loomed on the horizon, I told my best friend Vince: Jennifer and I have been through so much together, I’m not sure if anything could tear us apart. We’re a good team.

Vince looked at me thoughtfully and said: success and prosperity. You’ve not experienced that yet. And that does strange things to people.

I’m not sure at this point what success and prosperity would look like for me. Likely not a $10 million house or a $60 million private jet. Abundance feels to us right now like a small place of our own and a comfy couch to cuddle on and drink coffee. (And at some point, someone’s abandoned kids to take care of.) That’s all we really need.

Whatever comes, though, I know — I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

There’s Complicity, and There’s Complicity…

Apropos of a conversation of sorts taking place in the comments section (thank you Laurie and Doug), yes, we are all complicit in the societies in which we find ourselves. To some degree, which is why I don’t go anywhere near as far as some of the radical reformers (anabaptists) in saying society or community must be morally pure or else the believer’s salvation is at stake. It’s not, and nothing from a smart reading of scripture — especially the New Testament, and exilic documents like Daniel and Esther — suggests that if you understand that Christians/Jews were a minority living in a society whose terms they could not dictate.

Remember, in Matthew 25, the sheep and the goats are distinguished by acts of kindness and love for the weak and the vulnerable, not support for policies, politicians, governments, or regimes. That sort of thing he’s been beyond control of most people anyway (even in allegedly democratic polities).

Rather, what the “Benedict Option” for me is a state of mind, a realization of who the people of God really are. Modern Christians, especially Americans, have a deep and troubling problem of not being able to distinguish the moral order of the created (or redeemed) cosmos with the actual order they find themselves in. Americans in particular have theologized the American founding, and turned it into a kind of natural theology that seeks to, or should, order and govern the world.

Or, to put it another way, Western Christians have never entirely been able to tell the church and the state apart. Not as institutions, but as spacial entities. I am both a citizen of the United States and a baptized follower of Jesus Christ. Americans, especially (but are not alone in this), have confounded and confused the two, mistaking American values for Gospel values and a certain reading of scripture as supportive of the American endeavor in ways God does not seem to support God’s people in scripture. (Remember, Israel is “chosen” but also bears the worst of God’s judgment.)

Yes, Jeremiah passes God’s instructions on to exiled Israel:

4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4-7 ESV)

Do good, love your neighbors, and seek the good of the place you live, and the people amongst who you live, but never forget — you are an exile, a subject, and this is not your land. It can entail participation in politics (though I think that’s a distraction), but it must always remember — we are a subject people, and that is not ours to change. To quote Ezra and Nehemiah’s prayers, “we are slaves this day.” And this describes Israel’s relationship to Persia, the nation that ended its exile, whose king, Cyrus, was God’s “anointed.”

This is also the essence of Paul’s instructions to the church in Romans 13, especially when he reminds that church that *love of neighbor* and not love or loyalty to the state is what is at stake when he writes, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”(Romans 13:8 ESV)

So, for me, the Benedict Option is a reminder that, as Christians, we cannot and should not expect that the moral order of the universe will or should reflect itself in the physical ordering of the world. And that exile, not dominion, may be the natural state of the church on this side of the eschaton. Israel wept for its exile, but lived in exile nonetheless, and ever after, Israel’s sovereignty was constrained.

It means remembering that America is just another contingent part of the natural order, an accident of history which has come and will, at some point, go. Because all things pass away. It is the church — and America is most definitely NOT the church — that will remain. To the extent that too many American Christians have deeply confused the two, struggling more for an American order rather than to follow Christ as Christ called us to follow, well, this is why we need something like the Benedict Option.

It is to remember what Paul wrote to the church in Philippi. That was are, in the end, citizens not of any earthly polity, but of a heavenly one.

17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:17-21 ESV)

The Wages of Sin is … What, Exactly?

On my recent drive from Indianapolis to Baltimore, Jennifer and I sang some of my songs. (Just the words. I don’t play guitar or ukulele and try to drive at the same time. I fear that would end badly.) We do this often. One of the songs I started singing was this, something I wrote for a friend’s installation as a pastor in Virginia and based on a passage in Deuteronomy:

Basically, it’s a fairly faithful rendering of this:

15 “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20 ESV)

And as I worried about whether our van would overheat as it crossed the hills of West Virginia and western Maryland, I found myself thinking about what it means that God has set before us “life and death and good and evil” (my rendering; the actual passage bundles the good and the bad together). And what it meant that Israel would perish if it failed to adhere follow the path of life.

After all, God commands Israel, through Moses, to “choose life.” Not just for ourselves, but for our children and their children (and their children) as well.

This passage is part of the blessings and curses that God proclaims to Israel regarding the following — or lack thereof — of the teaching God has just given to Israel through Moses. It’s echoed by Paul when he writes in Romans:

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23 ESV)

And this verse is, at least in my experience, frequently used by fundamentalists to try and persuade. (I remember this from a lot of Chick tracts.) “If you are a sinner, you will surely die,” it says. The implication is, I think, that you will suffer for your sins, or perhaps even be struck down. God has no tolerance for sin. (That’s it part of a lengthy discourse on sin and reconciliation that begins with Paul speaking of Christ’s death, and our baptism into his death, frequently is ignored.)

I thought about these verses, about the promise from God that Israel would perish if it failed to adhere to the covenant.

Because Israel failed. It’s interesting, the Deuteronomy passage included blessings and curses. And both came true. Israel was blessed. Israel was cursed. The has been blessed. The church has been cursed.

Israel’s story is the story of failure. Of defeat. Of conquest and of exile. That fact — that Israel failed, and doing so, tells us what the church’s life as the people of God has will look like. In Leviticus 18, for example, after God gives Israel the long list of sex acts Israelites are not allowed to do:

24 “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, 25 and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. 26 But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you 27 (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), 28 lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. (Leviticus 18:24-28 ESV)

This bit about the land vomiting Israel out if it fails to adhere to these rules is repeated in Leviticus 20:22. And given the history, of Israel’s conquest, of the disappearance of the norther kingdom (Israel/Ephraim), and the conquest and exile of the southern kingdom (Judah, Benjamin, and Levi), it would be easy to describe what happened as exactly that — the land vomiting Israel out.

We tend to look at the law and consider the matter of consequence and punishment. The wages of sin are death, as if somehow we can avoid death.

But we all die. Jesus died. So, when God tells Israel that failure to adhere to the convenient means Israel will perish, he’s merely describing what is to come. When Paul speaks of sin and death, he speaks of something we all experience. As the Qur’an says,

Every soul shall taste death. And only on the Day of Resurrection shall you be paid your wages in full And whoever is removed away from the Fire and admitted to Paradise, he indeed is successful. The life of this world is only the enjoyment of deception. (3:185, modified Khan & al-Hilali)

And so, threatening me with death for sinning is merely stating the obvious. I’m going to die anyway.

No, God has another answer to sin. To Israel’s failure — to our failure. And that’s resurrection.

It’s already there in Deuteronomy.

1 “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2 and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you.” (Deuteronomy 30:1-3 ESV)

It’s already there in Ezekiel 37, where God asks if the dry bones, the dead things, can live. (Ezekiel 37 seems like an answer to Jeremiah 7 & 8, in which God promises nothing but suffering and death for Israel. “Do not pray for this people,” God tells Jeremiah, “for I will not hear you.”) And then brings them to life.

This is why Jesus died. Because we die. Because our deaths are meaningless without his death. Because he rose and in him we rise. Long before writes of the wages of sin, he confidently tells the church in Rome:

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:5-11 ESV)

Dead to sin. Alive to God in Christ Jesus. There can be no real resurrection without death. And yet, in our baptisms, we are made part of the death of Christ. We taste his death, so that even before we die, we may taste something of his resurrection. And know it’s real. And live like it’s real.