From fear and trembling to refuge (Psalm 2)

I have always had a particular attraction to Philippians 2:12, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” partly because it creates a crisis for evangelicals with a formulaic “decision for Christ” account of salvation. I do believe that justification by faith is a core part of our salvation, but I also think that δικάιοω (justify) means “make just” more than “declare just” in a way that the English language screws up with the word “justification.” Though we need to have Christ’s justification declared to us to wrest us free from self-justification, it is a means to the end of the Holy Spirit’s sanctification by which we are made just. And God doesn’t need to have the results of an act that He authored “declared” back to Him through some contrived performance of feigned ignorance. You can call the trust that God instills in us a “decision” if you need to, but it’s a decision that must be remade over and over again, and furthermore it’s a surrender, not the product of dispassionate rational deliberation (sorry Bill Bright!). In any case, I was reading Psalm 2 in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament this past Monday. It may have been what Paul had in his head in writing Philippians 2:12 because it talks about “fear” and “trembling” and how they relate to the refuge that God offers to humanity. Continue reading

A Call to Humility and Repentance

My buddy Derek wrote a post yesterday about how it’s not inappopriate for Christians to either mourn or celebrate in response to a presidential election. I agree with what Derek had to say; it was a legitimate reminder to be gracious in responding to the emotions of our friends. I do also think that all Christians regardless of our political views need to be called to humility and repentance. We have just been through a very acrimonious campaign season in which we have all sinned by saying hurtful and unfair things about blanket categories of people who are either “immoral and lazy” or “greedy and dishonest.” It is now time to examine ourselves and ask God to heal us from the spiritual damage of our sin. Most of my thoughts here are inspired by a recent sermon “Gratuitous Grace, Unfair Grace” from my favorite preacher Jonathan Martin of Renovatus Church in Charlotte, NC, which you should listen to on his podcast. Continue reading

“I am not the messiah!”

So how many of you know something about John the Baptist? If you had to describe him in one word, what would it be? What about humble? Well it’s not the first word that comes to my mind either. Some of you know that Pastor Larry and I try to preach on the same passage each week. So when Pastor Larry told me the topic for this week was humility and the model for humility was John the Baptist, I was perplexed. John the Baptist was loud and rude and judgmental. He was a fire and brimstone sidewalk preacher. Continue reading

May the Arrogant Be Put to Shame: Monster-Psalm Meditation #10

Psalm 119:73-80

  Your hands made me and formed me;
   give me understanding to learn your commands.
 May those who fear you rejoice when they see me,
   for I have put my hope in your word.
 I know, LORD, that your laws are righteous,
   and that in faithfulness you have humbled me. Continue reading

Jesus: the Hood Ornament for Our Self-Importance

Viridiana Martinez shared the following photo on her facebook page this past weekend:

If the bottom text is too fuzzy for you to read, the whole billboard says, “We follow Christ, so it’s basically a win/win for you to follow us.” The arrogance of this advertisement is astonishing. I get that this particular church is trying to make a play on words since the word “follow” probably refers to following the church’s actions online on twitter or some similar network. But this sign captures an attitude that a lot of us Christians seem to have about the relationship between our faith in Christ and our self-importance. Instead of renouncing our self-importance as followers of Christ submitted to His will (which is what it actually means to “confess Jesus Christ as Lord”), many Christians blaspheme their salvation by seeing their faith in Christ as the reason why other people should look up to and follow them.

In many ways, this is the story of Western Civilization. At least between 1492 and somewhere in the mid-to-late 20th century, Jesus has served as a hood ornament for our triumphant march across the globe to conquer and enslave other races. In all of the royal proclamations claiming the land of the New World for the kings of Europe, the land-grabs were explicitly justified by the purpose of establishing Jesus Christ’s reign over the territory conquered. I’ve read the journals of the Spanish conquistadors. They really did believe that killing and enslaving native Americans was the way to share the gospel with them.  It’s horrifying but it really happened. It’s hard to tell how much cynicism was involved in the theological gymnastics they underwent to justify genocide.

The challenge to us today as Christians, particularly in white evangelical churches, is that we have inherited theology that has been warped to justify the sins of the past. The “family values” movement for instance was launched in the early 1970’s by the same segregationist church leaders who had just been bulldozed by the Civil Rights Movement. That doesn’t discredit the very legitimate concern of trying to keep teenagers from getting pregnant and ruining their lives. But when my “family values” become the basis for my feelings of moral superiority and my excuse for not loving my neighbor whom I have deemed “immoral,” then they have become squarely opposed to the whole purpose of Christianity both in my personal walk with Christ and in the social transformation of establishing God’s kingdom on Earth as it is in heaven.

Let me put it plainly. Jesus died to save us from the imprisonment of our self-righteousness. As long as we keep cataloging all our actions as proof of what good people we are, we can never enter into the joy of communion with God, because that joy depends upon being able to interpret whatever good deeds we’ve happened to do in life as gifts from God to us rather than resume bullet-points that we can use to argue  God into accepting us. By trusting in Jesus as Lord and Savior, I am set free from needing to prove my own righteousness. If on the other hand, I view my professed faith in Jesus as the legitimation of my self-righteousness (as many Christians do), I haven’t been saved at all but have turned the antidote for my fallen sinful condition into the source of my damnation. In the Bible, it says there’s one unforgivable sin: “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.” There are many different interpretations of what this means, but I think we blaspheme the Holy Spirit when we glorify ourselves for whatever good the Holy Spirit accomplishes through us, when we feel compelled to say, Follow me because I’m doing it right. If I cling to the need to be important, have followers, etc, I am actively resisting God’s effort to transform me into a vessel of His love for the purpose of creating a world where His mercy reigns.

A good litmus test for whether Christians have actually accepted God’s mercy and the fact that they don’t deserve it is to see how easy they find it to judge other people whose lives they know nothing about, whether it’s gay people, undocumented immigrants, Palestinians, or any of the other modern-day equivalents of the 1st century Samaritans whom Jesus championed not because they were uniquely great people but because of how much his fellow Jews hated them. It’s one thing to confront people we know and care about regarding some sin or shortcoming in their lives if we think it’s hurting them. But when we rail against “those illegals,” “those gays,” or “those Arabs,” we’re not taking some kind of moral stand against sin; we’re just feeding the insatiable appetite of our self-righteousness and building a wall against the healing power of God’s mercy in our hearts. Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35  describes the mindset of far too many Christians in our country right now. For those of you who don’t know the story, a servant gets forgiven a debt by his master and then he goes and beats up another servant who owes him money. That kind of perverse hypocrisy is precisely what we engage in when we see Christ’s sacrifice as the justification for our self-righteousness rather than liberation from self-righteousness.

If we have really accepted God’s mercy through Christ, then we will treat and talk about other people with mercy. And not only that, but we won’t go around looking for other people to follow us. We will instead follow Christ into the world and seek His face in the eyes of other people whom we serve. Our goal as Christians should be simple: to be Christ to others and to see Christ in others. The first part doesn’t mean that I need to be the world’s savior; it just means I should be a servant to all in imitation and obedience to Jesus’ example. The second part doesn’t mean that other people are perfectly sinless like Jesus; it just means that Jesus cares enough about even the least of His brothers and sisters that whatever we do to them, we’re doing to Him. So let’s follow Jesus and stop looking around to see if other people are following us.

Betrayal and Self-Righteousness

Walking in the Valley Lenten Series #3, 3/26/2011
Text: Mark 14:1-11

During my sophomore year at UVA, I betrayed my school. Some of you may remember Steve Wojciechowski, the most hated point guard in Duke basketball history. In Wojo’s senior year, the Blue Devils came to play at UVA and I went to the game wearing a Duke sweatshirt. UVA was up by 1 with less than two seconds remaining. Wojo got the ball and dribbled it quickly down the court, but mysteriously the game clock didn’t start. When a UVA player saw that Wojo was about to score, he fouled him, and Wojo hit both free throws to win the game for Duke. I’ve never walked through an angrier mob of college frat-boys in my life. And I was wearing a Duke sweatshirt. Somehow I made it out alive.

I figured I needed some comic relief because betrayal is a very serious sin. It’s serious enough that in Dante’s epic poem about hell, the Inferno, traitors find themselves in the deepest circle of hell with Judas having the honor of spending eternity in the mouth of Satan. What makes betrayal sting so bad is that the one who hurts you is someone you trusted. Since we know how Judas turned out, we can only see him as a traitor, but up until he turned on Jesus, he was one of Jesus’ best friends. In fact, the gospel of John tells us that Jesus trusted him enough to let him hold onto the money. So why did he do what he did? Nobody can say for sure, but let’s take a look at how the gospel of Mark tells the story.

It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’ While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her.

But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’ Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

Luke tells the story a little differently, but in Matthew, Mark, and John, Judas’ betrayal comes immediately after this scandalous incident that we might call “perfume-gate.” A woman does something that is plainly irresponsible not to mention socially inappropriate. It wasn’t just a waste of money. It was completely unfitting for a respectable rabbi to let an unrelated woman into his personal space. And Jesus had a habit of letting loose women into his personal space to rub oil on him and literally kiss his feet, just like the way Jesus let those country people bring their filthy children to him to be loved on. It was embarrassing and unbecoming of the brilliant rabbi Judas had decided to follow.

How many of y’all have ever had an eccentric boss who you had to cover for? I did once, and I ended up betraying him. Before I worked for him, I saw him giving speeches and got a larger-than-life impression of him in my head. When he became my boss, I learned that he was just a human being with habits and opinions that drove me crazy especially since I was responsible for managing how the public perceived our organization. After a few too many press conferences in which he went “off-message,” I quit my job and wrote a long email airing my grievances which got back to him and hurt him pretty badly.

I’m not sure what was going through Judas’ head, but I imagine that the perfume incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back after a long list of ways that Jesus had not lived up to Judas’ expectations. Not only had Jesus failed to be what Judas wanted him to be, but he had publicly shamed Judas and the other disciples for trying to keep scandalous people and their embarrassing behavior away from the rabbi. Now Judas could have made a different choice. He could have trusted that Jesus had a lesson to teach him in the way that he let these women pour perfume and oil all over him.

He could have wrestled through the discomfort and awkwardness he felt and allowed Jesus’ witness to transform him into a person who responded with gentleness when other people did socially inappropriate things out of the goodness of their hearts. But Judas didn’t trust Jesus as a teacher; he trusted his own assumptions about the cause that Jesus was supposed to represent. Jesus had betrayed Judas’ assumptions, so Judas felt justified betraying Jesus.

I realize that there are many different types of betrayal, but I suspect that some form of self-righteousness lies at the heart of every betrayal. To betray other people means deciding that they do not deserve my respect, whether it’s because they have wronged me in some way or because I feel entitled to do whatever feels good regardless of the consequences for other people. But the opposite of betrayal is not just following the rules of social relationships. If I’m just a rule-follower, then it’s far too easy for me to call fouls on other people that justify breaking the rules myself. Jesus broke the rules when he not only allowed this woman to pour perfume on him but when he rebuked his disciples for trying to protect him from scandal. And this was just too much for Judas.

Of course, Jesus didn’t break the rules just to break them; every time he violated the Sabbath; every time he committed a social faux pas; every time he let a sketchy woman into his personal space, he did so out of mercy. Mercy is the true opposite of betrayal, because when you’re merciful, you aren’t looking for excuses to stop respecting other people. Looking at others with the eyes of mercy means seeking to preserve their dignity, even if they do things that you could judge them for doing. Mercy is what Jesus was trying to model for Judas and the other disciples by how he reacted to the woman’s waste of perfume. It wasn’t that this woman had some clairvoyant sense that Jesus was about to be buried. As Jesus says it, “She did what she could.” That was all that mattered, so he honored the sincerity of her heart by describing her act as the best thing she could have done.

How many of y’all know somebody who sincerely tries to do the right thing but can’t seem to pull it off in a way that doesn’t create drama and alienate other people? Isn’t it tempting to gossip about people like that behind their backs? I know that I do. Well what if every time we did that, Jesus came into the room and took up for the person we were badmouthing, arguing why the very actions that disgusted us were the epitome of righteousness? How many times do you think Jesus could do that before we stormed off to the chief priests to hand him over?

The fact is that all of us are like Judas. Even though we weren’t there to betray Jesus 2000 years ago, we have all betrayed Jesus by how we’ve treated other people. Whenever we fail to show mercy to others, we disrespect the mercy that Jesus died to show us. But the good news is that Jesus is not keeping score. He knows that we too have been betrayed. Every one of us has been a victim of betrayal in some form or another, whether it was a misunderstanding, a slight, or an act of vicious cruelty. Some of us have very deep wounds that make it very difficult not to spend the rest of our lives lashing out at other people in bitterness.

Jesus can’t undo the wounds we have received from other people; all he can do is offer us his own wounded hands in solidarity and teach us how to transcend the endless cycle of betrayal by letting mercy have the last word. Mercy is the only antidote to betrayal, because when we accept Christ’s mercy, we can resist being defined and shaped by the betrayals we have suffered. Jesus did not let Judas’ betrayal define his relationship with Judas. He knew what was going to happen, but when he broke the bread and passed the cup in his last supper, he offered his body and blood to Judas no differently than the other eleven disciples just as he offered his body and blood on the cross for Judas’ sins along with the rest of humanity. Jesus died to liberate us from the ways that we have betrayed others and from the ways that we have been betrayed. We can share in his victory over betrayal if we live our lives in mercy as a grateful response to his mercy.

Anger: Deadly Drug or Zeal for God

Deadly Sins Sermon Series, 1 out of 7 — 10/16/2010
Text: selections from Jonah

In the late nineties at the University of Virginia, we had a hellfire preacher who would come out every fall to verbally abuse people in the amphitheater. He sent all of us to hell, Christians and non-Christians alike. He would always wear a suit that was very wrinkled and sometimes soaking wet. He usually drew quite a crowd. The frat-boys loved him and did their best to make the event entertaining for everybody else. I would usually go with a pack of horrified Christians to try to argue the Bible with this guy, which we usually gave up after twenty minutes.

When I read the story of Jonah, it brings up the memory of this hellfire preacher. Jonah was a unique prophet; he was the only prophet in the Bible who managed to succeed at God’s mission by rescuing Nineveh from divine judgment only to fail in his personal relationship with God by hating God for His mercy. Jonah’s predicament is a very good example of how anger can turn into a deadly sin.

For the next seven weeks, Pastor Larry and I are going to be talking about the seven deadly sins. There are all kinds of sins, but Christians over the last 2000 years have found it useful to group the more serious forms of sin into seven categories. The reason they’re called deadly is because they are the ones that corrupt our souls enough that, without God’s gracious intervention, we cannot stand the experience of God’s eternal presence. I’m going to talk today about how anger can become an obstacle between us and God that requires God’s grace to overcome even when we’re angry about something that isn’t our fault.

Anger is complicated, of course. It isn’t always evil. In fact, evil itself should make us angry. You can’t say that you love somebody if you do not hate whatever causes harm to that person. So we must be particular in how we talk about anger. This is why it’s helpful to contrast the story of Jesus’ anger in the temple with Jonah’s anger. Doing so can reveal to us the point at which anger becomes a sin.

Anger by its nature generally has something to do with justice. We get angry when people treat us unfairly, when we are unfairly accused of being unfair, when our unfairness gets called out while other peoples’ unfairness gets overlooked, and when those who have behaved unfairly seem to get forgiven unfairly. Jonah was angry because the Ninevites had done great evil, and then got off scot-free just because they showed remorse. Jesus’ anger was directed at the injustice of the temple merchants ripping people off and exploiting the sacred practice of sacrifice.

The other thing anger often relates to is honor that has been offended. We seem to have a duty to our own dignity to ensure that any disrespect we receive from others isn’t allowed to stand. It seems dishonorable to let yourself get pushed around. Jesus and Jonah both responded to what they perceived as insults to God’s honor. When Jesus cleared out the temple, he said, “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” The actions of the temple vendors dishonored God’s name.

Jonah told God that reason he didn’t want to preach in Nineveh was because he “knew that [God is] a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love.” In other words, Jonah was angry with God for being a pushover.  We have to remember that Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, which had massacred thousands of Israelites and sold them into slavery. Don’t let Veggie Tales’ G-rated version of Nineveh’s evil fool you. This was a city of merciless warlords who had Israelite blood all over their hands and engaged in disgusting religious practices that are too graphic to describe in present company.

What God accomplished through Jonah’s prophecy was an astonishing miracle. Consider how huge this must have been. Some Israelite peasant smelling like he had just been spit up by a huge whale goes into one of the most cosmopolitan and powerful cities in the ancient world, the capital of the people who had crushed his own people in war, and somehow he gets an audience with the king who decrees that everyone must fast and cover themselves in sackcloth and ashes. This would be like the crazy hellfire preacher we all made fun of in the UVA amphitheater going into Washington and convincing all of Congress to sit on the National Mall covered in ashes and go without food until God’s forgiveness had been assured.

But Jonah was unable to experience the joy of God’s miracle. He was all about his mission while he got to be the judge declaring hellfire and damnation on the people of Nineveh. But when God decided to be merciful, Jonah didn’t get to be the judge anymore. This is precisely the point at which the sinfulness of his anger gets revealed. It is not a sin to be angry about sin or even to prophesy angrily against it. Anger becomes a sin when we get addicted to the self-righteous satisfaction of telling other people how wrong they are. It can turn into a drug that makes you feel like the god of a universe in which you are right and everybody else is wrong. When you’re addicted, you’d rather other people stay wrong than be forgiven. This addiction becomes eternal when you’d rather stay mad and refuse to forgive than spend eternity in community with God and the people who did you wrong.

Anger is a deadly sin because without God’s gracious intervention, there are eternally deadly consequences. But this is why God gave us the perfect antidote. Jesus absorbed into his flesh the fury of the world’s anger. He received it in the lashes of the Roman whip, the crown of thorns, the nails that were driven into His flesh, and the agonizing death that he experienced. By being resurrected from the dead, Jesus has proved to us that he can take on whatever wrath we give him.

Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we have a place where we can take our anger. Jesus has said to us, “Stop bickering with each other and trying to prove who’s innocent and who’s guilty when you know that your life circumstances are infinitely complicated and everyone has a piece of the blame. Blame me! I don’t care that I’m innocent. Take all that rage and nail it into my flesh so that when you’ve poured out all your wrath, you can have peace with God and your neighbor.” Jesus died for our sins and the sins of others against us. His cross reminds us that, whenever we let our anger define us, we become part of the crowd that screams, “Crucify him!” But we can take our anger to that cross and ask forgiveness for whatever wrong we may have done as well as liberation from the boiling in our souls that came about because of whatever wrong was done to us.

It is healthy and appropriate to express our anger. Without doing so, we wouldn’t get rid of it. We would just bottle it up until it explodes on some poor soul who does something really minor to us, causing this other person to start their own bottling-up process to explode on someone else and so on until we have one big sea of wrath that tosses us around like infants in the waves. That’s the story of human history. And God is merciful enough to rescue us from the waves of wrath by giving us a cross to nail our anger to and a savior who is willing to receive it.

When we give up our right to be self-righteous by bringing our anger to the cross, the pain will take some time to go away, but we are liberated from the addiction that trapped Jonah. When anger ceases to be about my quarrel with another person, then it can turn into the righteous anger at sin that Jesus expresses in the temple. It becomes a question of God’s justice and God’s honor. Jesus didn’t have a personal quarrel with the merchants selling pigeons. He was consumed by zeal for His Father’s house. And this zeal made it unacceptable for Jesus to see His Father mocked by a sinful practice. When I am liberated from the self-righteous anger in which conflicts are defined as being between me and someone else, then my anger can be made into zeal for God’s justice which compels me to fight evil itself rather than sinners like me whom God loves and wants to liberate.

Now it’s a very perilous path we walk when we’re fighting for God’s justice. It is so easy for righteous zeal to be corrupted into self-righteous anger. It is immensely important to be in constant prayer questioning our motives and asking God to purify them. When you raise challenges to hypocrisy in the religious or political establishment, people are going to respond with anger, which Satan will gleefully use (if we take the bait) to rip apart human community and make a train-wreck of our mission to bring this broken world under the Lordship of God’s kingdom.

We are called to transform the world. That is what this body of redeemed sinners has been created to do. It requires some anger to have the guts to respond to God’s call. But as soon as we start feeling self-righteous, as soon as we feel ourselves getting high off the drug of condemning others, we need to get on our knees and ask the Lord for humility. We need some anger to clean all the idols out of our temples. We need some anger to get us out of the belly of whatever whales have swallowed us and onto the road to Nineveh. But unless we give this anger to God to be purified into zeal for His kingdom, whatever good God accomplishes through us will only leave us bitter like Jonah. Let’s put our anger on the cross so that we can rejoice with the Ninevites every time we see evidence of God’s mercy.