When progressive Christian Brian McClaren wrote “A New Kind of Christian”, back in the early to mid ots, I wonder if he knew he was just verbalizing an old kind of Christianity for a new audience. The progressive evangelicalism that emerged during that time eventually came to understand they were late blooming Mainline Protestants. Here in 2019, the Emergent Church no longer seems to be a thing But not because of change in theology or drop in influence, but because they realized the redundancy of having two labels (Mainline and Emergent) for what really was the same thing, with perhaps the one and only way progressive evangelicalism stands out from the Mainline is the absence of a hierarchical church system. Other than that, let’s be real. Same thing. So they kinda got absorbed.
A lot of petty infighting over the decade, and it turned out to be about labels.
But to be fair, a lot of the infighting was about what to do with postmodernism, whether to embrace it, accept it, or resist it, theologically and/or missionally. I don’t want to minimize how important that is.
But my question is: has the world gotten better since Christians fled to their respective “response to postmodernism” corners? And whether it has or not, which missiology is best fitted for this new world?
I live in Rural/small town New England. Brattleboro Vermont to be exact. But I would include New Hampshire and Western Mass as part of the same basic cultural landscape. The church culture in small town New England is (to me) unique. The categories are…
- Embrace Postmodernism theologically and missionally.
- Accept the reality of postmodernism for the purpose of mission, but do not embrace it theologically, or
- Resist postmodernism with all our might. For it is the incarnation of Satan.
As far as I can tell, there are no 2’s in Brattleboro, Vermont. Just 1’s and 3’s. In terms of overall population, there are very few professing Christians, and nearly everyone who professes Christ is over 55. But there are church buildings everywhere. Most of those buildings house a few dozen liberal and mainline protestants in them every Sunday. Most of those churches have practiced postmodern Christianity decades before Brian McClaren thought he was blazing new trails with the Emergent Church. In short, New England culture is postmodern, and the church is too. And if a church is not wholly of the milieu, it’s aggressively reacting against it. So that’s the lay of the land.
So with postmodernism comes outreaches of mercy, and lefty activism. Homeless shelters and food kitchens and demonstrations and social justice groups, and worship services abound. All good stuff. But nevertheless there is an epidemic of underbelly suffering affecting us all; without preference for race, religion, culture, or class. It’s officially called the Opioid Crisis, but I think an equally appropriate term for it would be “the angel of death.”
And that is an area I recently learned is without the presence of our town’s faith community. I don’t really understand why. I could theorize. But that’s all it would be.
And what is the Church’s response to this crisis? We might ask it differently: how does the church appear in Brattleboro as the city on a hill? But I want to take issue with the question.
The postures of embracing, accepting, and rejecting all carry themselves in a way that says, “the church has the solution.”
I.e. “how is the Church going to be a city on hill?”
The mainliner exclaims, “By feeding the poor. Sheltering the homeless. Fighting for social justice.”
The evangelical says, “By witnessing/telling our grace stories/being incarnational/doing outreach/properly contextualizing?
So if the church simply did what they were supposed to do then Brattleboro would… what exactly? Get better? Become the kingdom?
I don’t know. The blind cannot lead the blind. And the problem with the blind is that they are always the ones out in the front showing us all where to go-the ones with the answers. (Wait?…)
I can just hear us.
“Thanks Jesus for the cross, the advice, the good words, and the resurrection, but we good-hearted humanitarians, we can take it from here. We will build a bright shining tower for you. Let’s call it, er, Babel! Yes!…Wait. Is that too on the nose? How about, ‘City on a Hill’. Without a vision the people perish, right?”
But the light of the world is Jesus Christ. And if the light seems dim it’s not due to a drop-off of zeal in the church, but maybe it’s a matter of zeal in the wrong direction, a zeal for something else, a zeal that turns our eyes from the light himself and makes Church into a blind, lifeless, and outdated coping mechanism for boomers, bound in hymnals, Bibles, prayer books, bulletins, and programs.
I fear our eyes have been dimmed to the ancient truth that the kingdom is realized in darkness, pain, death, and devastation. It is not magically conjured into clean mainstream society by the power of positive thinking, a massive increase in adult baptisms, or egalitarian political agendas. Unless the kingdom is sought in the dregs of acute hopelessness, it will will not be seen. And until the servants of God lay down their signs and run to the trenches they may never really see the Jesus they speak so highly of at church.
In the Gospels, it was faith in Jesus that healed the hopeless ones. He said to them “your faith has healed you” as if to shift credit from his touch to their faith. Which is odd. (Cuz I do think Jesus is the healer. Duh!) But it was as if our master considered his part to be that of simply being present when saving faith burst into bloom, as if his primary role was to be present to affirm the healing, and into bursting faith he spoke words of life. A missional model? Perhaps…
Last night at discipleship, I was asked to reflect in writing upon who I thought were my angels and messengers and what they were saying to me. I wrote the following.
My angels have human bodies. Jim, Rick, and David. (Not real names). These are recovering drug and alcohol addicts. I have heard each of them confess their need for Christ in prayer. And never were their respective prayers contrived cliched religious utterances, or merely going through the motions. But I heard them confess their afflictions and their need for Christ in tender, but urgent pleas, as if to a parent that they had hurt, but whom also was their only resort, their only hope of salvation. Hearing these true and pure confessions brought me out of my religious stupor and I realized afresh, in my heart, that I, that we all, need Christ like that. Desperately. And that those who are know that level of need are those who have been caught in addiction.
Until I heard a desperate person in recovery cry out to God, I don’t think I really knew what contrition or Romans 10:13 was about. And to my surprise, hearing real cries for heavenly help helped me finally understand mission. Which is that I have more to learn about and from Jesus than I can teach about him. The missional question is not, how can I be a light, but, where is the light to be found?
In the Gospels Jesus is rarely found behind official podiums, but much too often for his own safety, in the derelicts of the desperate. If mission is to serve Jesus, and to serve Jesus is to serve the least of these, then serve “the least of these” I must, but the secret of the kingdom is that the desperate turn out to be the teachers. I believe God may be found in Brattleboro’s hidden Gethsemanes, the places that middle classness cannot let tourists see, in the dark and hidden needle laced gardens of our town, where people cry out to God, not as their daily or weekly ritual, but as their real and very present need.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were rescued;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
‘He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’
Yet you are he who took me from the womb;
you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.
On you was I cast from my birth,
and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
Be not far from me,
for trouble is near,
and there is none to help.”
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
These words set the tone for the whole Psalm. Upon which, by the way, I will take more space than usual to reflect. For here are the very words of Jesus on the cross. And his Jewish audience would have recognized it and they would have understood that Jesus was not just being poetic; comparing his particular pain to a text they memorized as children, but he was identifying his whole person, this whole event to the whole Psalm, and by extension to the whole of Israel’s, and by extension, humankind’s bloody history. That is how Jewish references worked. Jesus wasn’t being clever or ironic. He was utterly sincere and prophetic. I should point out in addition that being prophetic has little to do with predicting the future, although that may be a feature of it. Future-telling is not intrinsic to the definition of “prophecy”. To be prophetic in the broader sense is to make an overt poetic connection with something from the past or future. Here Jesus’ prophetic words for the cross backward and forward. Backward to Psalm 22 and forward to the Epistle to the Hebrews where it says of him, that he was tempted, that is, he suffered, in every way like us, and yet without sin. And because of this he is able to help those who suffer as he did-afflicted, persecuted, and misunderstood i.e. the “fellowship of his sufferings”.
Another figure whose personal tribulation serves as a template for human suffering is of course Job. Who lost his family, his possessions, and his health, and endured it all without sinning. What is interesting is that even though neither Jesus nor Job sinned through their trials, they both addressed God in a way that might seem to teeter on irreverent or ungrateful. After all, God is not just anyone. Which is, maybe paradoxically, why he gets the brunt of the complaint. He alone can do something about so much suffering.
Extreme suffering, from now on let’s say affliction, for God’s people, feels like divine abandonment. It’s like staring into nothingness and seeing only more nothingness, like being suspended in nothingness, surrounded by abyss.
It’s like a broken promise.
Other memory verses offer little comfort. For David, the writer of Psalm 22, Jesus, and Job all know the promise, “I will never forsake you.”
“God who never forsakes, where are you?”
It’s bold. It borderline blasphemy. It’s near faithlessness. But it is sanctioned by invisible saving grace. For the suffering of Christ (of God!) is the initiation into the throne of grace which is not entered sheepishly, but boldly. As Queen Esther went boldly but perilously to the throne room of Xerxes, knowing that if the King of Persia refused to extend his scepter it would be at the price of her life, so we enter the Holy God through the body of Jesus. Only an intimate has the right to say to the Creator, because in this case, he happens to be their Father (and brother!)- “Hey, where are you! I thought you were good!” If you’ve ever openly questioned the goodness of God, the man on the cross is with you and for you.
But though the believer dangles over the edge of doubt, and even touches the dragon’s groping claws she is never captured, or taken from the hands of the Father who endures her clueless tongue lashes.
She always claims the “yet”, which holds a simultaneous tone of slight disdain, open hope, and reverent restraint.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were rescued;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame
“I am forsaken by you God” cries the afflicted. Yet… (Is she confused? Self-assuring? Sarcastic? Backtracking just a bit before the God she just baldly declared to have abandoned her?” )
“You are holy. Your people lift you up in praise. Our ancestors trusted you. And we have heard how you saved them. We have heard how you answered their cries. We have heard how you rescued them from shame. There is precedent here. Because you are holy, and because you have a history of salvation, we have reason to hold back our despair. “
Desperation sounds bolder than faith. The words following the “yet”, sound much less confident than the words following “my God”. What kind of grace endures you and I for our boldness in accusation, and meekness in faith?
After a brief, if tepid, affirmation of God’s past faithfulness, the afflicted launches headlong into his own pain again.
“But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
‘He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’”
A worm is a thing trampled into dust and ignored. A earthly belly crawler good for nothing. Modern science knows that worms aren’t good for nothing. But this is poetry, not biology. The point is, the afflicted expresses how lowly he feels, how lowly he is in the hierarchy. He is mocked. His peers shake their heads in shame. They make funny faces at him and mock his trust in God.
Remarkable that they would mock him for trusting God as he has just let out a cry, “Why have you forsaken me?”
Mockery is a shot of dopamine. To the one who mocks of course. That’s why he does it. It doesn’t matter if it’s logical. What matters is that the one mocked is brought down. In this case, the mocker simply affirms the afflicted’s feelings for his own pleasure. He calls the other’s pain for what it is, and in doing so, twists the knife to his own delight-reminds the afflicted that yes, yes, he is indeed forsaken, a hint that he, the mocker, is evidently, nay obviously, not forsaken, but even blessed, by God who, yes, the proof is in the pudding, hates the afflicted one.
It’s juvenile. But human. It feels good to kick the man whose down.
But in Jesus’ own life, the poetic turns into history. Jesus made a ministry out of making the self-righteous feel less righteous, less worthy of God. And his dying on the cross, was vindication to his enemies that God had finally chose them over him. So they spoke the hurtful words out loud, if only that their own ears may hear the justification, for hearing is believing, and repetition aids in learning.
How sweet self-righteousness is!
Next comes the second round of “Yet”. But this time it is not the vindication of God’s goodness, but of his love and favor for the afflicted.
Yet you are he who took me from the womb;
you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.
On you was I cast from my birth,
and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
Be not far from me,
for trouble is near,
and there is none to help.
“Even though my suffering is fodder for the mockers that I really am abandoned by you God. I still have reason to trust you. For at this point, who else will I turn to? I have known no other God, and I have no one more powerful or capable to do anything about my affliction.”
Perhaps, after all the poor persecuted one thinks, “I am forsaken by God. I see no reason to trust him. But to whom else can I make my appeal?”
The sinister thought those who are truly afflicted have, if their honest, is that God really doesn’t care about their suffering. It is one thing to let your child suffer something you know they will overcome and be better for. It’s another thing to actually abandon your child.
The most intense and clarifying trials of our souls are those which bring us to a point of decision. as we hang over the abyss-has God really abandoned me?
You will recall that Jesus made the decision before he was risen.
“Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit”. If he believed with all his heart that God had abandoned him, how could he say that? He made the bold decision to believe that God would not abandon his beloved to Sheol. And I think he made the decision for us all. “Father, as representative of new creation, of new humanity, into your hands I commit my Spirit, and therefore all creation.”
And what did the Father do with this faith? He blessed it, and raised the Son of Man to life!
Friends. This is really all there is to do in the end. Clamor, kick, and scream, and pray if you will, but this is it. In the end, all there is is a commitment of oneself to God.
“‘Who then can be saved?’
‘With man it is impossible. But with God all things are possible.'”-The Gospel
“I miss the comfort in being sad”-Kurt Cobain
Hope is the unseen and therefore to use what is seen in order to induce very present and visible hope is not to induce real hope at all, but to conjure a temporary feeling of hopefulness in the absence, that is, as a substitution, an off-brand, if you will, of real hope. On top of showcasing a temporary hope, such platituding makes for a false hope. For hope which is seen is no hope at all.
Hope springs from the depths of a despair very few of us have ever seen and ends in an eternal ocean of gladness that none of us can imagine, or put to words. We should be blessed to be named with“those who mourn”.
But although “blessed are those who mourn” is true, it would be perverse for one to pursue this blessedness intentionally, as if it can be received in time, in this world. Perverse it is to think that by praying for a scorpion one may apprehend the mourners blessedness as if it is something he should wish for normally.
It’s like a kid asking his parent to get grounded out of the blue, having done nothing good or bad, yet. Is it as noble as it is stupid? Does it not have an aura of pretension? Of what annoying people call “virtue signaling”?
Pray with moderation. Don’t be absurd and ask God for tribulation. Don’t be obnoxious and ask him for wealth.
No mourner is sitting on the street in a puddle of wretchedness, begging each of his superiors for fifty of their cents to buy food, beer, chocolate milk, cigarettes, and heroin, wishing that more people could experience the blessedness that is his life.
But Jesus says that addict is blessed.
Which, let’s just say it, is offensive. To everyone. For different reasons. To the addict because it attributes his curse to blessedness. And to the middle class person because it makes very little of his worldly success.
“The prayer of the righteous man availeth much”
What about the prayer of the destitute and afflicted?
Either way, it’s the Lord’s.
“Father, in heaven. Your name is too holy for my unclean lips, and yet here I am. May your kingdom and will come to this place of woe, affliction, and destitution, which we call earth. I don’t know what to ask you for except I am hungry and you are the provider, so get me through another day. Help me forgive like you forgive. Forgive my many shortcomings. It’s so hard to survive this harsh world without breaking your law. Guide me through the gauntlet with minimal bruises. Without your guidance I am hopeless.”
If that’s the prayer of the destitute and afflicted, Mrs. Job has a suggestion
“Curse God and die.”
Mrs. Job was enlightened.
Call me callous, cynical, and nihilistic, but I don’t need to hear songs of praise for some Christian who is going through some trying situation for not abandoning the faith. Of course he find worldly hopefulness! That’s the beauty of it!
Hope is all we have! I have no problem with made up hopes in and of themselves. We lie to ourselves to survive! This is the great white lie of human history and I think it is beautiful!
But to try to pass off the platitudes that get us through as if these were identical to the heart of this grand faith, this mustard seed planted by the mournful, which is of course Christianity–that is really to put a veil over Christianity!
If Christianity is false, offensive, depressing, and horrid, let it be so in clear sight!
The hope of the Christian is not the message of some best selling preacher, I said, charlatan, nor is it the vision of the sincere but short sighted humanist.
It is the whimpering of one whose faith in God, should we come right up to it, would not appear praiseworthy, beautiful, imitable, or commendable, but mysterious and frightening. That’s if it were even visible.
The way people talk about death when they actually face it is proof that they don’t believe in the eternal, that they don’t have real hope. Hopefulness they have. Methods of survival in the midst of earth shattering sadness is theirs, but not real hope. Real hope can’t hide a deep sadness. Condolences sound distinctly like people talking themselves into something. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Have you ever had these words laid on you? “She is in a better place”. Did you believe they really believed it? I don’t know about you. But I never believe they believe it. And now I am sitting here trying to imagine what it would be like to be in the presence of a person believing their own (sincere, vulnerable, and heartbreakingly human) condolences. Yeah. It would frighten me if they did. We don’t cry at funerals because we are going to miss our loved ones for a few decades until we get our shot to hang on clouds. Otherwise, the tears shed in funeral parlors would be of the same essence as tears in an airport. No. We cry because we are being forced to face what’s too powerful for us, death. And it is nearly impossible to conjure the raw Christianity to shake off the belief that they are truly gone, or the horror of knowing that one day we will be too.
Nonetheless, there is a place for hope in this world. But it looks strangely unlike hope.
That place is the forgotten Bethlehem, the dark Gethsemane, and the excruciating cross, where God refuses to solve humanity’s woe without joining it.
And in Gethsemane in particular, Jesus, on our behalf, hands us all over to the will of a God who has just refused his hope filled and rational request for earthly reprieve from suffering execution by asphyxiation, and instead directs his only Son’s despairing eyes toward the unseen, unproved, and unbelievable hope of resurrection.
God practically incentivizes doubt and confusion. (Perhaps to make prayer intelligible)
It is a false god whose pure will gives us only warm fuzzies.
But some will protest with sarcasm, “So masochism it is.”
No. You can’t manipulate redemption or suffering. You can’t carve your own cross without admitting another kind of worldly hope, a hope in your own ability to atone. You can’t offer yourself as a lamb to God For you are the one who needs saving from death.
Suffering will come. But woe to the man through whom it comes. To pick up a scorpion is unnatural. To make a direct request for one is perverse. But to pray for a genuine blessing is to be shown a picture of your savior crying out to God with the voice of David, giving you the hope you really didn’t ask for-that of incarnation and resurrection. Meanwhile you sleep. Sword in sheath, your great white hope.
What I have said is this. The joy you seek is supernatural. It is infinitely higher, lower, further, and deeper, than you can imagine, than you can imagine you would want. The Spirit of joy groans deeper than you can imagine. And you are nearer to God the deeper your groans.
Who can say to God what David, and thus Jesus, says, sweating blood in the garden? “Look away from me that I may smile again?”
Heaven is a real hope. I do not deny. But for eternity, not time. The hope of resurrection doesn’t touch feelings in a way that validates it in real time. Heaven and resurrection are unapproachable in this hopeless temporal world. The highest hope within temporality is not an end to our pain, but is communion with God in suffering, the pure assurance that suffering is meaningful because it is shared in and with God.
What does this mean for “social justice?” Should we leave the mourners to their blessedness? Why take that away from them?
“Woe to him through whom the stumbling block comes!”
Whether they know it or not, God is present with mourners because he is present in suffering. He has seized captainship of suffering by the cross. Hope is unseen for now. But suffering has meaning with God at the helm. So not only does he suffer in the manner of sufferers. He suffers with them in the present. Whatever you do to the little ones, the mourners, you do to God.
To look at a man in his puddle of wretchedness and think that the call of God is merely to assist in his exit from the puddle is noble, but mistaken. Mistaken not because he doesn’t need help, doesn’t need your help. God forbid! He certainly could use your help! Mistaken not because you are not obligated to help. For you are as obligated by nature to help another as you are to feed yourself. Lack of mercy for your neighbor is a form of suicide. Not because you have to answer to God for how you treated your neighbor, in some empty space where incarnation is absent, but because how you treat your neighbor is itself your answer. But you shall not forget that the decisive element, for your Christianity, if you claim to be a Christian, is incarnation, which is not for the sake of temporal justice. Because God is present between your mourning neighbor and you, your response to God’s incarnational love for you waits reciprocation, not because God’s love is conditional and depends on your response- it’s not as if God is testing us by putting the poor always among us-it is just the nature of love to of itself demand reciprocation without attaching any strings at all-to the chagrin of familiar sense. The tears of the oppressed seem to all with ears to hear as the love of God, demanding without demanding a response, the mirror response of incarnation.
I say all that to tell you this. That the mourners are blessed because their inheritance is eternal, and in this eternal kingdom, of which no words can utter the meaning, they will not mourn.
But that is no seeable hope. So we don’t say to the mournful. “Don’t worry poor wretch. Jesus comes to save”. Though it’s the most glorious truth! That is not what they need right now, in the temporal. I mean, it isn’t about what they need. That’s apparent. They need water. Give it to them without pride. But if real hope is what you desire to give them, here is the not so glamorous truth. You can’t! Hope is not a commodity. You can either join them in mourning, or ignore it. You can either seek God or have the pleasure of not seeing people cry. You can believe what they might not believe, what they might even pray to Jesus without knowing, in a place too deep for words, the place of prayers only the Spirit can hear. You can believe, you can hope against hope, that in eternity the mournful are blessed. And in time, mere time, the highest is no hope, but is in fact love-we join the mourners and are together joined with God, a friend to whom you have come so close you may be terrified and astonished on some woeful day to hear these heartfelt but stupid words come uncontrollably out of your mouth, “look away from me”! And God will chuckle with a hint of sadness at the irony as at a child who scraped their knee, thinking her life might be over. For he answered that prayer for only one, that you might never know its full horror.
But let us also not see such a distance between us and those that mourn. Woe to us who think we are rich, who think we see, who avoid or plunge into the pain of others assuming we are outside, beyond, or above, who think we are in the position of giving but not receiving, for if we are not sick, then we cannot be moved to cry out, to seek a physician, to get to know the Son of David. Blessed are the sick. For they seek and find.
Let the world argue about the duties of the haves toward the have-nots. Let Christians seek to understand what it truly means to have and have not. The blessing of those who mourn is not in this world. But love is. It’s love, not hope, connects woe to God.
I doubt there has ever been a large portion of the younger generation at any period in time that didn’t insist on emotional authenticity. If there is one thing young people hate, it is the awareness or even suspicion that someone is selling them.
But I’m thirty-five now. With a wife and three kids. At that age and life stage where I’m too old to be hip and too young to be wise, and yet both old and young enough to know it.
I don’t presume to speak for my own generation It only ever feels like I’m projecting, so I might as well speak for myself.
So what does myself want? Real, real, real. That’s what I want. I want real spirituality. Not band-aid spirituality.
I feel especially ill equipped to speak for the burgeoning generation behind me. But now that I have been the pastor of a church made up entirely of Boomers, minus my own family, and one or two others, I feel I can say, if there is a generation I do feel ready to represent, it is (most ironically to people who know me) the oft maligned generation of my parents.
I can tell you what they want in a pastor. Comfort and reassurance in their waning years, chicken soup for the soul. The older I get, the less caustic and more sympathetic I am toward that sentiment. Still, being younger, it does leave a faint superficial taste in my mouth. But, to put on the other shoe, someday death will seem closer than life, and then I might be in some pew expecting the wide-eyed preacher to just make me feel a little less scared, especially if they are young enough to be my kid. I can’t imagine at that life stage I’d even try to pretend I’m not among the supremely wise, and be able to much tolerate rebukes about my shallowness or cynicism.
I’m also sure there is a balance between chicken soup and raw non-gmo style ministry. But I hate talking about balance. So I won’t. All hedging henceforth aside, I will speak for the one I am most qualified to speak for. In other words, this isn’t about how to get millennials into church by “being more authentic”. This is about, if you take away the salary and the most literal pulpit I am gifted each week, how to get me into church. Really, it is about how to get me into a Christian community at all, formal church, with steeples and deacons, or if it’s more your thing, a missional community with candles and hummus, and maybe board games.
A real Christian community is a group of people who agree that Jesus is the creator and king of the universe, crucified for sin, risen, and coming again to drop heaven fully on earth, and want to have fellowship around these beliefs-by participating communally in the Lord’s Supper, preaching the good news about Jesus, baptism, singing, prayer, confession of shortcomings, and reflection on the Holy Scriptures known as the Bible. Their hope is that through these regular practices of discipleship, along with engagement with their neighbors, especially the oppressed, the beauty and reality of Jesus and his kingdom will be seen and embraced by their friends and enemies, their neighborhoods, and their cities.
If that is too general. I’m sorry. (Not sorry) It’s on purpose. I’m not that picky about the finer points of theology.
The struggle I have with what I affectionately call “Boomer Churches” (Reminder that I am the pastor of one of those) comes down to my inability to determine if church for them is about life, or if it is a pastime, a distraction, a safe space,…a comfort zone. When it has appeared to be the latter, it has no interest for me.
Now people congregate with their friends around common interests and ideals. Largely, that’s a wonderful thing just by itself, especially in the internet age. However, Christian community is a specific type of community, more than a hangout. It can and should have its shallow moments. But it cannot be constituted as such. It’s essence is a deep connection to reality.
Spirituality is about connecting with what is real, not escaping from it. I think a church gathering ought to function as a reminder of what is real and as a strong reaction against mere human nature-the felt need to never face the truth straight on, whether it’s thought too painful to bear or too good to be true, to work and entertain the truth away, every day. Either way, the real Christian communal experience is neither a guilt fest nor a feel good party, although on the emotional level, it may sometimes accompany unpleasant feelings and other times express pure joy. Sometimes, the real Christian community may foster all the feelings at once.
But when our expectations of church are the same as our expectations of drugs, food, and entertainment media, we are actively escaping real community.
When the service (to say nothing of the problem of equating “church” to “church service”) is always described as “nice”, “lovely”, “helpful”, “beautiful”, “rejuvenating”, or “inspiring” (which hopefully church is those things) and almost never as “raw”, “difficult”, “real”, “thought provoking”, “provocative”, “healing”, “life changing” or “offensive” it is time to evaluate if we are practicing communal discipleship or medication; if we are connecting with reality or escaping from it.
And this isn’t about preferring deep and melancholy to feel good and happy. Ascetic and liturgical expressions of church can be just as escapist. Not all the truths we run from are negative. Some of the hardest words for me to accept are reminders that I am loved. My fear of failure produces the habit of seeking refuge in the morose; a quality I suspect few understand, and not one I recommend.
That’s because what is great about the gospel is its ability to hold the positive and negative truths together. The truths of life, that it is all suffering, that humans without God are irreparably damaged, that the bad guys get to keep being bad guys, that death is pretty much here.
But also the truth that death has no sting because Jesus is risen, that sin is cured by the suffering of God, that the bad guys time to be bad has a term limit, that the kingdom is even nearer than death.
So when a local Jesus community gathers, it isn’t about escaping or feeling better (or worse.) It’s about connecting to reality. It’s about connecting to Jesus. It’s about vulnerability. It’s about connecting to one another; being honest and open with one another. It’s about facing the hard, but love filled, joyful, and hopeful words of the good news about Jesus. It’s about experiencing more than friendliness and a warm heart, but love. It’s about mourning over the state of the world, while rejoicing in the hope of the gospel. It’s about blessing one another as we scheme ways to bless our physical neighborhoods, not retreat from its suffering, but be present in and with it. It’s not about making charitable donations, its about being charitable donations, which is as much about receiving charity, requiring a certain kind of strange and risky fellowship in the slummy parts of our towns, so foreign to most North American churchgoers
My hope for North America, for New England, for Southern Vermont, is for the existence of vibrant and explicit Jesus communities that have the inspiration and courage to creatively and wisely face the realness of the world with each other, in all its gore, and mess, its sadness, desperation, and loss, as well as its inevitable redemption, its inherent and breathtaking beauty, its hidden hope, it’s real love, as found in Jesus.
Is this hope, this dream, this prayer, a millennial or Gen X thing? Is it just a “me” thing? Honestly, I don’t presume to speak for a generation or to a generational issue. This is my head and heart laid out. If there are any whose hearts long for the same kind of community in Southern Vermont, join me and my family in prayer. And also, if you can or so desire, dinner.
Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins”-Psalm 74:3
This stood out. I hope it doesn’t come off the wrong way to say I have read every Psalm at least once every month for 6 years. I say this not to make any point about how spiritual or vigilant I am. I am blessed to do this. I bring it up to make a different point. I know the language of the Psalms. That is pertinent for two reasons.
First, it matters because this turn of phrase just sounds weird. It isn’t normally the way the Psalms speak.
Second it matters because this idea of Israel, Yahweh’s people as “perpetual”, although not often stated in exactly that way is thematic in terms of God’s relationship to his people. As Abraham J. Heschel says it,
“God has permanently attached himself to Israel”.
Yes his covenant is everlasting. God has made a promise to himself that no matter what his people do, he would never stop being their God, he would always be merciful to them, always restore them, never forsake them. He would discipline them in ways that would feel to Israel like abandonment, allow other nations to dispossess them in return for their unfaithfulness to him. But in the totality of his relationship to the children of Jacob, he would honor his everlasting, perpetual covenant, he would always allow, even aggressively draw out repentance. He would always welcome them back. He would always be their God, even when they were less than “his people.” God had left himself no other choice than to stay in familial attachment to this “stiff-necked and obstinate people.”
Parents get it.
The Psalmist is uttering a very common prayer when he says, “Direct your steps…”. Most prayer in the Psalms is asking God to do what he promised. That fact has always made me justify my laziness in praying. If God can’t lie, then the fulfillment of his promises do not depend on my praying. But anyone who is even a moderate novice in true prayer knows that it is not God who depends on our prayers, it is our modest faith which is the needy one. Prayer is like a note to ourselves of truths we easily and always forget, with the added bonus that in it we are connected to the only being in the universe who can do anything about the impossible. There is something about knowing we are not alone in the universe, that there is something, someone beyond the clouds. (I hear your atheist snickers, but you too go mining above the atmosphere. The drive is primal.)
So he says to God, “direct your steps”, “make your way”. Other psalmists might say, “Hear our prayer, O LORD. “Attend to our pleas for mercy”.
Prayer in the Psalms sounds as desperate exasperation. Faith is always full of pathos. Disinterested faith is not a thing.
“Direct your steps (O, LORD) to the perpetual ruins.”
The historical context of Psalm 74 is that the nation of Israel lies conquered. It’s temple and city destroyed. Which to a people who connect God and faith directly to city and place of worship, is not only the defeat of their nation, the enslavement of they and their families, but a crisis of faith, and the seeming defeat of God, if not a renege on his promises.
But it’s the adjective which caught my eye. That word perpetual. It might be thought redundant to talk of ruins as perpetual. Ruins are perpetual. Even if you can restore to relative similarity, you will ever be able to restore a city to exactly what it once was. Ruins are the perpetual proof of the temporariness and vanity of humanity’s great cosmopolitan efforts.
I can picture my four year old son constructing a magnificent tower of jenga blocks all the way to the ceiling. And if he did, I would condescendingly praise his efforts. Because that’s what good dads do. But the hard truth is that I could knock it down with a breath, if I wanted to. And my son, if he wished, could agitate me enough to want to. He could put a sign next to his artful wonder of the world which read, “Proof that I don’t need anyone.” Anyone would include me of course. And then I would consider it a service to my son, and maybe moreso to the world, to nip the egomaniacal monster waiting to burst forth through him (though us all) by doing what would appear ruthless, and kick that tower down to the perfectly vacuumed floor, a fact taken for granted by the ungrateful little blessing who builds Jenga towers.
Or I could be merciful and correct my son verbally and warn him that if he doesn’t remove the sign and check his pride, I will kick that tower down.
In neither case am I wrong. I would not destroy the tower because I am sadistic and enjoy crushing the souls of four year olds. I would because pride is cancer, and I am not waiting until chemotherapy is necessary.
And in this analogy it would be so easy to prevent a Jenga tower from existing in my house. A perpetual lesson learned with difficulty, if ever, that it only exists in my house if I want it to, and that beauty is temporary and fragile.
If I really wanted to make the lesson clear, I would leave that dilapidated tower on the perfectly vacuumed floor.
The story of Israel is perpetual in two ways. In one way it is the story of the unending love and faithfulness of Yahweh. In another way it is the story of the stubbornness of God’s people.
So we are always asking God to direct his steps toward the ruins because our doomed towers are ever on the floor.
The great paradox of life is that we are all beautiful and we are our all ruined. Nature as we know it groans as a beautiful ruin unto itself, awaiting its redemption, which is inextricably tied to the redemption of humanity.
From birth #1, our flesh and our hearts are molded in the hateful pride of our father Adam, whose tower of anti-neediness has been trying to reemerge in various forms on God’s perfectly vacuumed earth since the beginning, and perpetually knocked down by God, making his attempts to curb the monster within appear ruthless, putting our lives, faith and even his own reputation in perpetual peril that we may learn this lesson-the only strong tower on which we can depend is God himself-the Rock of ages.
The only hope of ending the cycle of ruination is the mercy of God.
“Direct your steps.”
And God answers this prayer in the form of a man named Jesus. (How else can I say it?) Jesus is the tower which is knocked down, and resurrected as the indestructible and and untouchable perfection of beauty.
So now the nature of our towers are exposed because they all are stacked up next to Jesus.
“The one (beyond the clouds) who sits in the heavens laughs…”
Our shortcomings are destroyed with Jesus. The best of us are hidden, and swallowed up, and become one with his unparadoxical beauty. In him perpetuity is transferred from the ruins to redemption. In him, God fulfills his covenant promises, his familial duty to the offspring of Abraham, that is, to every single one of us.
And faith is to prayerfully and passionately remember this perpetual love, as shown in Jesus. God’s salvation is never waiting for us to get life unruined. But for us to reach rock bottom of ourselves that we desperately cry out. “Direct your steps!”
Or we could keep trying to build laughably inferior towers. This will not end well.
“I’ve never understood how Christianity became quite so tame and respectable, given its origins among drunkards, prostitutes, and tax collectors…
…Jesus could have hung out in the high-end religious scene of his day, but instead he scoffed at all that, choosing instead to laugh at the powerful, befriend whores, kiss sinners, and eat with all the wrong people.”-Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s words at a funeral she officiated for a young (self-identified) queer named Billy who committed suicide.
But… the Psalmist says,
“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers.”
There is this song I remember from my youth group days.
“The things I used to do, I don’t do them anymore (3x’s)
There’s been a great change since I’ve been born again.
Then it went on to the “places I used to go, I don’t go there anymore.” There was even a “humorous” line that went all, “the things I used to date, I don’t date the anymore.”
In my adolescence, certain things were emphasized regarding how a new person in Jesus was to behave. It seemed as if the bottom line of being born again, of having Jesus in my heart, of being a Christian, was to abstain from all appearance of evil, and all appearance of evil came down to sex and drugs, and anything that referenced them in some way.
So it was that good people were straightedge virgins who stayed away from sex and drugs and people who were a little too lenient about sex and drugs. Those latter folk were either unsaved or backsliding. That’s basic and overgeneralized. But you get the picture.
The question of why Jesus ate with sinners was answered that, 1. Jesus could handle it because he was sinless and 2. He didn’t become intimate with them.
Number one is basically saying that only sinless people can hang out with sinners. But since Paul says that all have sinned, I suppose this means that nobody can hang out with anybody. Except Jesus. He is the only one that can hang out with anybody.
And number 2 doesn’t quite cut it either since eating with people was (and still is) a sign of intimacy. Which is the point of the religious’ and powerful’s great beef with Jesus. They weren’t upset that he was merely in the presence of sinners. The problem was that he was identified with them, like he was one of them, dining with them and all. It’s like if you saw a well-dressed business man and panhandling street person in the same coffee shop, but at different tables doing different things. The business man playing with his phone, waiting for his coffee. The street person doodling on a napkin having been parked at her table for several hours now. You’d think nothing of it. But if you saw them at the same table sharing coffee cake and stories, laughing and having a good time, you’d think something. Maybe you’d be cynical. Maybe you’d think it was great. Maybe you’re woke and you’d still think nothing of it. Maybe you’re so woke that you’d think the businessman was probably using the street person for something. Point is. There is a difference between sharing a public space and a personal table.
But who is Jesus in this analogy? The businessman or the street-girl? In the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life the dissonance that disturbed the religious and powerful wasn’t the sight of an upstanding man of the cloth eating with sinners. The dissonance was between how Jesus was repping himself (a legitimate teacher of the Law with divine authority, a prophet, and on top of that the Messiah) and how he showed up in everyday life. He looked and sounded a lot more like the people he was eating with than the priests and scribes criticizing him, and in more ways than one. The religious and powerful hated the way Jesus was appreciated and adored by the common people, the rapport and cache he had with them. The religious and the powerful demanded reverence. Jesus demanded nothing. He served. And he healed. And he taught. He offered himself.
It is high time to define the crucial term. Sinners.
In my youth I thought of sinners as sex and drug addicts. But I believed that I was also a sinner, and that I was still a sinner after Jesus saved me. From my sin. So even though “sinners” were sex and drug addicts, in my mind, I was a sinner too. But I was different. I was a virgin who didn’t do drugs. Sure, I lusted, masturbated, and watched people do drugs and make out wicked hard on television and in the movies with people who weren’t their spouse. And according to Jesus, that qualifies as sin. But I had gotten saved and wasn’t an addict. So I was different.
I mean I didn’t stop with the lusting and what not. But I was a good kid, and I hung out with good kids.
Except there was my friend Dan who smoked weed. And my friend Markus who partied. And my friend Justin, who had sex. Some of my friends said they were saved. And some of them didn’t. I guess I did hang out with sinners.
And if Jesus was around, or I was alive back then, Jesus would have hung out with me, served me, healed me, taught me, and yes, save me. If I wanted him too.
Or. I could just throw away this idea of being a sinner. And then I wouldn’t have to bother with Jesus at all. (Of course I wouldn’t actually think that I was not a sinner. That would be heresy. But I would definitely want to make a distinction between me, a bonafide Jesus follower, and other people. I mean, not that I am better. I am just “a sinner saved by grace”, but a sinner who is a better kind of person because of what I believe. Everyday I thank God that he saw fit to make a sinner like me just slightly better than other sinners, or I should say, “better off”, by forcing my hand to sign on the dotted line named “Gospel: that doctrine in which intellectual assent makes the difference between which terribles go to heaven and which ones get tortured by Jesus forever.” Aren’t I humble? It’s only by God’s grace I am so.) Then I’d have no need of a physician. That’s for sick people. And I am not a sick person. I’ve been saved.
Actually, in that case, I’d only be the sickest of people, with a whole camel lodged in my throat and dead men’s bones for a skeleton.
(Is “saved” the new religious clique? I think that’s what I am saying.)
There is “sinner” the way those Pharisees used it. There is “sinner” the way the Psalmist used it. And then there is “sinner” the way we evangelicals use it today.
A sinner in the Pharisees terminology is an outcast. And they were cast out of the community because they did not conform to the Pharisees rules, which they couldn’t, often because of life circumstances. But as outcasts without support from the synagogue, such people were in a vicious cycle, needing to resort to begging and prostitution, in order to survive. So not only sinners were these. But “unrepentant sinners”.
The sinner in Psalm 1 is placed alongside the scoffer and the ungodly. There is no reason these should necessarily be sex and drug addicts, or breakers of religious tradition. If we look at the context of the Psalms, and the constant crying out to God and praising him for salvation from oppressors, I think “sinners” are then “oppressors”. Outwardly they may appear to be mostly obedient to Torah, but in their oppressiveness they miss the spirit of God’s rule, and thus miss it entirely, like the religious and powerful in Jesus’ day. So blessed is the man who does not do life like an oppressor. Oppressors are born right out of a stubborn refusal to accept God’s righteousness as the way. Oppressors are constantly trying to control, even the means of salvation. Ultimately because their desire is to be the means. But blessed are the meek, the oppressed, the poor, and those who mourn, for their trust is in God, who is righteous, and who is making, has made, and will make all things right. It is not to say that the meek, the oppressed, the poor, and the mourners are without sin, but that at the end of the day, their ever waxing and waning and waxing and waning trust is in the Lord their God, not the State, and not their own “righteousness”, not the “righteousness” of the Pharisees, and not a metaphorical Gospel document they metaphorically signed so they don’t have to worry about being tortured forever by blue-eyed Jesus.
And when a modern evangelical says “sinner” he simply means everyone. Which puts us all in the same boat and means that brown-eyed Jesus would want to eat with every single one of us. He wouldn’t care how we dressed. Where we worked. Or what we had done or not done. Or what we could offer. Or what we couldn’t offer. He would take the burden of carrying our own misplaced need to be validated on his back. If we would have him. He will disrupt, destroy, and deconstruct our alternative ways of trying to be righteous, that is, valid, apart from him. But this disruption is freedom. If we have ears to hear.
And having him would change us, without us knowing it. Without us feeling the progress. Sanctification feels like stagnancy. Good for the ego. Others might notice it though. In the way we show up with them. You know, like Jesus. Not caring about their earthly reputations and how that interplays with our reputations, and the man-made expectations placed upon us. Seeing past the masks, to commune with another human in the gleeful absence of caring about superficial differences, those difference having been disrupted, destroyed, and deconstructed by a God who hangs out with sinners. In God’s eyes, there are no Pharisees. There are no tax collectors. No businessmen. No street-people. And under God’s rule everyone becomes a person to serve, a person to have our feet washed by, by virtue of their being a person. The religious and the powerful, the ungodly, they may scoff and oppress those who try to live under God’s rule of deconstructed distinctions. Because their sense of self worth is based on distinction. Distinction is the shrine to their validation, the idol of their hearts. But the only real difference is between God and man. And when God became a man he showed us all that there is no essential or root difference between a dust bellied man and another dust bellied man before an eternal God, no matter how we insist. The blood of meek and righteous Abel speaks a better word than the jealous murderous Cain. Jesus didn’t hang out with “sinners” because he preferred their company to the Pharisees’. He would hang out with everybody because everybody needed him. But the Pharisees wouldn’t have him. Because he hung out with everybody. He did not respect distinction. He was not impressed with their offerings of vegetables, choosing instead to become as Abel and his sheep. And in definitive identification Jesus suffered like the oppressed, bearing the brunt of the rage of the religious and the powerful, on behalf of sinners, outcasts, and all the wrong people.
So if you get caught hanging out with the wrong people, or the wrong people start coming to you, it might be a good sign. Don’t let the church people’s criticisms bother you in the least. God saves only sinners.
All names in this post have been changed to protect the sinners.
I figure whatever I write, somebody has already written, and whatever thought I have to offer, somebody has articulated it better than I ever could. I’d be better off searching for quotes than my own words.
I figure that writing is an incredibly self-absorbed undertaking.
Unoriginal. Inarticulate. Self-absorbed.
In the end, there is only one reason to do anything.
I do not mean romantic love. Nor for the record do I mean self-love or therapy. I also do not mean for the love of writing. I mean that unconditional, selfless, service oriented, gift giving, love.
It must be unconscious and egoless. If conscious, then not conscious of one’s own pleasure in writing, or the approval of an audience, but conscious in the pleasure and hope of blessing another-God and neighbor.
My hope is that whatever piece I give to the public, it can only be read as a love letter. All worthy writing is in the second person.
I almost hit send.
But I’m not quite contented with what I have written.
I have maybe implied that self-love is not legitimate.But I know there must be some lovely souls reading this whose lives have been saved by self-love.
Please understand. Self-love is not selfishness. Though it is hard to know the difference. But in one of the universe’s greatest tricks, self-love is not narcissism and narcissism is really self-loathing.
What we call self-esteem has little to do with the self. The more self-concerned one is, the more self-loathing they turn out to be. The more self-esteem one has, the more others oriented they seem.
The earth shifting occurrence which changes the landscape of this talk about self-love is that of the abused.
The Christian gospel, which I have believed, tells us salvation is found in accepting that one is loved by God. But many an abused person has no template for understanding love. And the one they’ve been given will not do for understanding God’s love for them. What the abused person needs to hear are not condemnations of selfishness, which will cause them to doubt if it is right for them to resist victimization (since their oppressors told them they were loving them). They need to understand that they have value beyond their use or capacity to please another person, and that on that basis they resist victimization, not because they are worthy of adulation, but because they are worthy of love.Because they are valued. Because they are valuable. Because they have been created with care and purpose. To love oneself is not narcissism. It is merely to correctly assess value. Every single human life is invaluable. Intrinsically so. Because God said so.
I happen to believe that God speaks a special language to the oppressed that often lands on privileged ears like it came from a flip-flop universe.
Jesus does say that the kingdom is backwards. He says, “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” These who might reject the gospel as presented to them by privileged people; it is not rejected on the grounds that they hate God, or won’t believe that he loves them because they just want to continue to live their self-centered destructive lives without judgment. It may not be rejected at all. It may be heard wrong. Because they are still in the thick of deconstructing the destructive definition of “love” wickedly thrust upon them. When it comes time for such as these to realize the kingdom in their midst, it is more like an awakening to something they already, but until that moment, only unconsciously understood. Heaven is not received in our efforts to work up the inner strength to accept that we are valuable. We are loved in those times we hate ourselves and loved exactly the same in those times we just know we are loved. And we are saved by that love. Love doesn’t ask for understanding. He doesn’t ask for anything. He makes all things new. In His time,without the permission of the beloved. And by his love the beloved is changed. And in time perfect love reveals itself, just like a light in a dark place. Just like that.
What is pride then? Isn’t it overblown self-love? I wouldn’t say that. I would say pride, the chief sin, the supreme separator from God, is an incorrect assessment of one’s rights and capacities. It has only a tangential relationship to self-esteem. A prideful person assumes control where no control is permitted or possible. The opposite of pride, humility, then is accepting the following paradox.
A humble soul gladly says, “I have nothing that gives me permission to control people or circumstances. By all human judgment, I am insignificant, almost to the point of meaningless… But for the eye of the Lord, who loves the unpretentious, and who looks out for the powerless”
To put the paradox plainly. A person is a creature of infinite value and infinitesimal significance.
Because significance is not a valid measurement of my value and value is intrinsic and absolute, I can live with, even rejoice over, my glaring insignificance in this expansive and endless universe. Pride may be infuriated at it. But what more does it want? God, who spoke this wondrous love into the universe, loves without logic or permission. He is free to assign infinite value to that which is essentially dust. Deal with it.
As a reminder, the dust is filled with the life and love of God. So don’t you dare kick it. As dust balls none of us have any say in assessing the value of human life. It’s already been assessed. Love what God loves. Not for what they can do for you. But for love’s sake alone. And by the way, the “they” includes you.
The Gospels feature a failure. If they were a how-to manual, it might be called “How to Sabotage Yourself.”
“How to Lose Friends, Become the Enemy of the State and Society, and Become the Most Influential Person Who Has Ever Lived, Long After You’re Dead.”
Meanwhile, his so called “body” is writing books and attending seminars about how to win influence and are becoming irrelevant while they are still alive.
The Synoptic Gospels tell the story of a man who spends the first part of his ministry making disciples out of Rabbinical school flunkees, and trying his hardest to avoid notice or recognition for all the good and miraculous stuff he does for sick and poor people, going to morally questionable parties, and angering religious leaders and experts in the Jewish law.
Then he spends the second part of his ministry confusing and frustrating his disciples, mostly by saying weird and dark things, and the crowds dwindle to twelve young men. Once wide-eyed, excited, and loyal. Now confused, disillusioned, yet faintly hopeful
Then he takes the Passover intentionally doing and saying things that get him killed. Although all he had to do to not get crucified was say and do nothing.
And then he is executed like a slave, like a piece of meat, discarded and mocked. And then he dies all by himself.
Our Rabbi. Our Teacher. Our Master.
How hard are we, the disciples of this man, trying to love the unlovable in miraculous ways while avoiding recognition and respect from our peers and betters for it; while trampling on sacred cultural mores, confusing and alienating our friends, and getting ourselves killed at the hands of the State with the approval of society at large?
Granted, you can get yourself killed and hated for saying and doing things that have zero to do with following Master Jesus. Being hated is not the goal. The goal is to be like Jesus. And that means we Christians are called into a life of opposition and discomfort.
We’re called to be the misunderstood thorns in the side of a sick and delusional sin culture and its leaders; leaders who are usually pretty put together, respected, and legitimized by the culture; a culture definitely willing to admit its imperfection, but will slowly slip into rage the more we insist the problem is graver than imperfection and the need is something more radical than tweaks, hard work, and modification.
In the end we are all hypocrites. And we all know it. But nobody wants to be called out on it. And some people have the resources to easily eliminate their thorns. Better not to say anything than call out the powerful masters of the culture (the sin culture) for their hypocrisy. That’s what gets you crucified. Besides, there are plenty of less powerful and less dangerous hypocrites to call out. And those are the ones more likely to repent anyway. Risk reward. Those who have the highest capacity and desire to hide their hypocrisy are not really the ones you want to go after. If you’re reasonable and utilitarian.
Unless, apparently, you want to be like Jesus.
So our calling is not fun or easy. It is a radical trust in God, resisting the relief provided by what Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace”, embracing the amazing saving grace that provides the strength to hold on to a God who without a hint of irony saves us by handing us a cross and telling us to thank him for it.
And we will curse him for it until we realize that by giving us a cross he is giving us Jesus. And it is better to have Jesus than relief from the pain of rejection, When he gives us our cross he is giving us what we can’t and would never ask for-the best thing ever-Jesus. The secret you find out later on the journey with Jesus is that just as the crowns he gives are not your crowns, but his crowns, the cross is he gives is not your cross but his. But that’s not the question the gospel approaches us with at first. It doesn’t ask. “Would you like a crown?” It asks, “What would you be willing to endure for the best thing ever.” That question itself is grace. That we’re even asked it is already grace. And even then grace is not done. Grace is also the active, God induced miracle, that makes our weak hearts answer the question with, “Everything. I would endure everything and anything for Jesus”.
We must be suspicious, therefore, of the “Jesus” laced promises of worldly success. And what we must be careful to do is be honest with our own hearts. There is no way of making a correct judgment from the outside (with objectivity) about ourselves or others whether our efforts to “build the kingdom” are about our genuine concern for God’s glory, or the more likely concern for our own, especially without humble and spirit filled hearts. Reason tells us it is unlikely to the point of impossible to be completely non self-interested. Nothing wrong with admitting spiritual failure. But self-deception is hell on earth. Humility is a foreign miracle, a heavenly gift. And God is a cheerful giver, especially to those who ask.
The suffering servant cannot be co-opted with the pursuits of the flesh, the rewards of human approval, and greetings in the important places. That doesn’t mean that rewards and greetings won’t come. The Pharisees were to be woeful, (they didn’t believe it) because they loved the tawdry reward of human approval more than the approval of God. But Jesus was well loved in Galilee for the most part. The key is realizing how little he loved it.
“My meat is to do the will of my Father.”
“And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’”
Such an hour it was! The hour when what has come to be known as Communion was instituted. For as often as we do this even today, in remembrance of Jesus, we are reenacting that blessed hour, an hour of light just before earth and history’s darkest day; with a magnificent horror waiting just below the horizon. For mere hours after his most desired meal with his precious apostles, Jesus would be begging God to release him from his appointed suffering. Meanwhile the apostles, with whom he earnestly desired to eat the Last Supper, are sleeping through Jesus’ darkest hour. Just hours after his last supper with his disciples Jesus would be betrayed by one of them, and abandoned by the rest of them. Less than a day after this last blessed and precious meal Jesus would suffer an unjust and cruel trial, a fumbled and unjust sentence, and a monstrous, heartless, and gruesome beating to the edge of death. Just hours from this supper he would carry his own cross up the hill called “skulls”, be nailed to it, and bleed and suffocate and die. And to think. That magnificent horror was the concrete event the last supper looked forward to. And there in the upper room a bunch of clueless disciples sat. And with them the Lamb of God hours away from his day of slaughtering. And he is most glad to be there.
I can’t recall another time Jesus says that he had been looking forward to something. Is this, the supper with his disciples, the apex of his personal human happiness? What about this supper made it so desirable?
The disciples are his friends. How bonding their three year journey must have been? All the things they have seen and been through together? Even though the disciples don’t understand the deepest meanings of that meal. It was the most meaningful meal Jesus had ever had.
Not only are they his friends. But they are the progenitors of his ministry, the apostles of the gospel, his hands and feet after he goes to his father. He knows that when they look back on this meal they will glean precious insights they did not comprehend as it was taking place. Insights which will define the church when it gathers forever. The Lord’s Supper is the Church’s longest and most identifiable tradition. Because of this supper, Jesus also dines with disciples throughout the ages as often as it is eaten. It is a way of sharing in his suffering. Believers partake of the Lord’s Supper as a remembrance that we are formed, and identified, as well as bathed in the blood of Jesus. In communion we remember what Christ has done, but also who we are. For through his work, we are his redeemed bride. Jesus could hardly wait to institute this supper that he would share with his friends and disciples for all of history. And even now he waits earnestly to eat and drink it anew with us when his work finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.
Which is another mysterious statement by Jesus. “I will not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom”
So he will eat it again?
But why? What will it signify or institute after he has already fulfilled all things? Will it just kind of put a cap on the gospel? The final “It is finished.”? Or is it a meal we will keep eating with him forever? Remembering with him this amazing display of God’s love and salvation on and on and on?
But is there no sense in which Jesus dines with us when we celebrate Communion even now? Wasn’t this past Sunday’s celebration of the Lord’s Table not only communion with each other, but with Jesus himself?
At any rate the point he is making here to his disciples is precisely. “This is our last meal before I die. But I will dine with you again. Only in the kingdom. And then it will different. Because I will be a crucified and risen Christ then. And then it will feel like joy and peace. Not like tonight, full of confusion and restlessness.
I believe we will celebrate communion for all eternity. But with a new spirit. Not the spirit of confusion and restlessness that plagues our earthly existence, and haunts our Masses and services. Rather we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper with a pure spirit of awe, praise and glad remembrance of the what the Lord accomplished for us.
The great works of the LORD are worth remembering and praising and blessing him for forever. That’s why those works were done. “The heavens declare the glory of God. Day and night pours forth speech” (Ps. 19)
In Psalm 92 the Psalmist declares “for you have made me glad by your work”. Creation and salvation are the two greatest works of God. What God has worked for his people in Jesus is greater than the salvation he worked for his people in Egypt, which was only a foreshadow; greater than the deliverances David praises him for over and over again in the Psalms; all of those deliverances being foreshadows of salvation by cross and resurrection. The physical enemies David cries out against are the personification of the invisible enemy behind all oppression seen or unseen-the enemies of sin, the flesh, the devil, and death. All of them put to death and destruction by the death of Jesus. They have no lasting power. Only an illusory capacity to tempt and torment with the hopeless hope that that the faithful redeemed will succumb to such paltry temptations. Pshaw. God has already worked salvation out for his people. He has already promised the Christian victory over their sin. Though the devil and the flesh will tempt us to despair of life, or give in to selfishness or base desires like wealth, power, fame, or to unmitigated bodily pleasure, the weakness of the cross is a strong anchor by which we are reminded that power and pleasure as it presents itself to our corrupted flesh is undermined by the willing submission of God to God on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
Jesus longed to eat that meal because it stamped forever the victory of God through means only a genius playwright like God could create. A crucified peasant and twelve of his disciples turned the world upside down by such a display of power that the human mind can only comprehend it as weakness and foolishness. This grand eternal playwright, whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom; whose weakness is stronger than human strength.
Because they ate the last supper, we disciples eat as well. Communing with the believers of all times and places, and with Christ himself. When we eat this supper we are reminded that we are a peculiar family whose central tradition is a celebration of our Master’s abasement, humiliation, and death. What kind of people we are! Peculiar indeed. But because we have eaten with Jesus, we know how to perceive strength where other perceive weakness. And we know how to perceive weakness where others perceive strength. We know how to perceive wisdom where others perceive foolishness, and foolishness where others perceive wisdom. Because we have eaten with Jesus and of Jesus, we know how to perceive victory where others perceive defeat and defeat where others perceive victory. We know how to perceive hope where others perceive hopelessness and hopelessness where others perceive hope. We know how to perceive the Lord where others perceive the wretched and the wretched where others perceive god.
The last supper was the beginning of a new era in which the reign of evil was being upended to make way for the upside down kingdom of God, through the most unlikely event-the execution of an innocent but willing human being. And then, in the most striking string of most unlikely events the world has ever seen packed into just 3 days, Jesus rose again! And in doing so mocked the already mockable empires and death cultures of power hungry humankind. He exposed their powerlessness over both God and life by rising again. He made a cross an eternally unconquerable symbol of unfailing hope, wisdom, power, and victory. The Christ and his cross. In their memory we gather to eat and find strength and wisdom.
Idominatable are the weaklings known as Christians sitting around a table together with Jesus. And that is our strength. We shall not be moved.