Sunday, March 29, 2015

Palm Sunday: "My soul is sorrowful even to death."

I love Holy Week, and I love Palm Sunday's readings. The Psalm and the Gospel reading for today both stir such love and gratitude in my heart and I don't quite know how to express it. Not only did Jesus take the weight of our sin and suffering on Himself, He took on our fear and our sense of aloneness and of being abandoned into His mind and heart.

Jesus' agony does not begin and end with the nails in his hands and feet; it begins with crippling fear the night before His trial. From the Last Supper, He tells His disciples His soul is weighed down with sorrow, "to the point of death," and He asks them to accompany Him to Gethsemene to pray.

In Gethsemene, He is so overcome with the anxiety of the whole of humanity He begins to sweat blood. Before He tasted the bitterness of vinegar from the cross, He tasted the bitterness of His friends' apathy as they slept through the most terrifying moments of His life, and the bitterness of betrayal at the hands of a friend.

Jesus knows how it feels to be forgotten and alone and stabbed in the back. He understands the worst of our anxiety and depression, not from observation, but from living through them with us. He carried our wounds not only in His body but in His mind, heart, and soul.

But even more touching is the fact that He takes into Himself the first-hand experience of feeling forgotten by God. He never begged the soldiers to stop beating Him; He never offered a defense of Himself at all. Even pushed to the limits of His flesh, He does not complain. But from the cross His internal misery presses Him to cry out: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"

In an almost twisted way, there is cause for comfort in Christ's Passion. Our Lord not only died our death, He felt our pain to its fullest extent, even to the point that He felt cut off from His Father. How powerful that our Hope understands what it is to feel hopeless; how extraordinary that our Help understands what it is to feel helpless.

This is a God we can know for certain is not afraid or ashamed of our sinfulness, wretchedness, misery, or fear, because He carried the full weight of each in His own heart and on His own shoulders.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

What if you're wrong?

What if?

If you don't live under a rock and live in the same day and age as I do, you have probably heard this painfully irrelevant question: What if you're wrong about God?

The most popular way it's posed is from Christians to atheists, typically this way: "I'd rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn't, than live as if there isn't a God and die to find out there is." The basic idea here is that if you believe in [the Judeo-Christian] God and behave accordingly through your life, and you die and He doesn't exist, you haven't really lost much. On the other hand, if you don't believe in [the Judeo-Christian] God, and so don't build your life around His precepts and laws, and you die to find out that He does in fact exist, you're in for a hell of an eternity...literally

Flaws (That Should Be Obvious)

This abysmal attempt at something vaguely resembling evangelization, otherwise known as Pascal's Wager, has been the go-to pseudo-argument of many a fundamentalist when all else has failed, as well as the most easily brushed off and scoffed at challenge faced by any atheist. At this point I'm surprised atheists even have front-facing eyes after how many times I'm sure they've rolled their eyes into the backs of their heads when confronted with this question.

As you might expect, atheists are quick to call the bullshit on this. If God is all-good and all-loving, why is the concept behind Pascal's Wager, which is unarguably meant to be threatening, even something to worry about? How can Christians proclaim a peaceful, loving Jesus in one breath and in the next insist that unless someone pretends to follow Him he'll meet a zealous tyrant determined to crush him under His might and fury?

I found this gem here
It should come as no real surprise that this question has often had the exact opposite effect on people than the questioner intends. "What if I'm wrong about God? He'll torture me forever? I'll gladly burn in hell before I worship Him a day in my life." Perhaps you've heard Mark Twain's famous quote regarding heaven and hell: "Go to Heaven for the climate and Hell for the company." The "what if" game is as tired as it is useless. Atheists aren't buying it, and they shouldn't. Praise God that they don't.

Another often (shockingly) overlooked flaw in this approach is perhaps the most simple objection: what if we're wrong? What if Christians believe in and worship the wrong god? What if we die and -- oh shit -- we're the ones in for that hell of an eternity? Is this compelling to you at all? No? Good. It shouldn't be. This is a dumb argument.

 A Loving God

As you can probably imagine, most atheists (and people in general) aren't exactly turned on to a deity by the believers in that deity displaying a form of unabashed Stockholm Syndrome. If the best and final argument we have at our disposal is "Well, I've told you how much God loves you and has done to save you, and if you ignore it you'll burn in hell forever because He is oh so just," we've completely failed at this whole evangelization thing.

The heart of Christianity is not, believe it or not, "living as though God exists" (though this is certainly part of it). The heart of Christianity is an unrelenting devotedness to trusting in Jesus Christ (we call this faith) to save us from the wicked world we find ourselves caught up in (we call this grace). The saving Person and mission and work of Jesus seem to be curiously absent from this "What if?" question game. Am I the only Christian honestly disturbed by this?

Evangelization is about spreading the good news of Christ's victory over death and its hold on us. Evangelization is not about half-assedly attempting to scare people into buckling their faithbelts.


Please, God help us all, just stop. This argument helps no one. This argument annoys everyone.


Christianity has a rich intellectual history. If you're curious how to engage atheists, there are countless saints and scholars you could turn to that will gladly answer your deepest questions. We have no need for silly questions and endless "what if?" games. So, please....just stop.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Humble God

"Your love is extravagant..."

Such was the opening line to a song the community gathered for Adoration sang last night at the local Newman Center chapel. A room full of 20-something college students, hearts hungry for adventure and excitement, brought to a calm and brought to their knees before a Mighty Ruler, a Sovereign God, a Worthy Prince...a piece of bread.

Peace so pervaded the atmosphere you could taste it. The room was quiet but far from dead; pews were packed with people alive for and because of the Lord of Life set before them.

Two days ago, we celebrated the feast of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel came to announce to Mary that she had been chosen to bear the Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior of the world, if she wanted. Of course as we all know, she agreed, but her consent does not at all diminish the awesome docility of the Creator to the created present here. God didn't just become human, He first asked if it would be okay.

God could have stormed into the world, trumpets blazing, light overflowing from the heavens, struck down the weight of sin with a single powerful blow, and been done with it. But God is not that kind of God.

Our God, curiously enough, is a God who asks permission, and not only that, He asks permission from a poor, young woman. He is a God who, when faced with the problem of His children's suffering, deigns to take it upon Himself by becoming one of them. He is a God who approaches His most famous victory "as a lamb led to the slaughter." He fights by forgiving. He defends by restraining Himself. He conquers by dying.

This radically humble God promised never to leave us, and on multiple occasions in Scripture describes the way He will remain with us. He remains on earth not as a ruler on a throne, but as bread on an altar. He becomes food for sacrifice; He becomes a life source for us, so small we can consume Him, so powerful He can enliven our dead hearts.

We worship a God who is humble. Take a second to let the beautiful irony of that reality sink in. We pour out our worship to a God who has poured out His riches and clothes Himself in humility.

And this love, indeed, is extravagant. Those who seek excitement and adventure need not set their desires aside to approach this God of humble wonders. He quiets us in His love (Zephaniah 3:17), but this is not a muting of our wants. This is a quenching of our deepest thirst.

We long to be truly loved, and God has done everything He can to meet this longing. He has responded to our deepest need and our deepest yearning. He has become so small we could easily crush Him, and He knows that. But He also knows that without this radical humility, His life would be inaccessible to us. And what He wants more than anything is to be intimately known by us.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Feast of the Annunciation (and the crazy ass rainstorm outside)

It's raining really hard outside where I am. It started very quietly and softly before turning abruptly into a relentless downpour. Spring weather is now in full swing, and my mind is wandering.

The thunder outside calls to mind the heavens tearing open at the Incarnation; Heaven kissing earth with Mary's consent -- God and humanity made one. The rain reminds me of the  Might of God poured out, the soil of the world mixed with the life of the heavens.

The Annunciation reminds me of the Resurrection. Jesus' first moments on earth were under the shelter of a womb; at what appeared to be the close of His life He was placed in the shelter of a tomb. From the womb He would emerge, be wrapped in rags, and go on to change the world; from the tomb He would emerge, shedding rags, having changed the world forever.

In my home state of Missouri, thunderstorms signal the arrival of warmer weather. Life will soon return to the trees and the ground and the atmosphere. I can't help but think how appropriate it is that our first big thunderstorm of 2015 falls on the feast of the Annunciation; the conception of Christ in Mary's womb, of course, being the event in history that would change everything; the announcement that death would soon become life. Winter is coming to its close, and Lent will be soon, too. And life is waiting at the other end of both.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Terror of Demons

Satan, in a damning habit of jealousy-inspired rebellion, has been hard at work to ruin God's relationship with humanity since the beginning. He and his demons have sought tirelessly throughout Scripture and throughout history to thwart the loving plan of God: first by turning God's beloved away from Him in the Garden of Eden by dismantling Adam and Eve's trust in their Creator; and again in the desert, determined and desperate to tempt even the Son of God away from His saving mission (again, by attempting to dismantle trust). This continued for ages in between, and without a doubt continues today. But (cue movie preview announcer voice) in a world...riddled with demons...the fate of humanity...rests on one man... (Darth Vader breathing)

Enter St. Joseph. A humble and righteous carpenter devoted to his craft in mind and deed and devoted to God and a woman in his heart. From the beginning of Mary and Joseph's betrothal, the dark forces of the world press against them and their relationship. Upon hearing that Mary is pregnant, and knowing it definitely isn't from him, Joseph is faced with the decision of a lifetime, literally -- the lifetime beig hers, not his. Legally, Joseph could have Mary stoned to death for adultery (and certainly, many of his peers would have expected it). But, we read, that he decides instead to divorce her quietly, sparing her life (and the Life inside her) in the process.

Enter an angel. One night while Joseph is sleeping, an angel of God comes to him to urge him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, and to raise her child as his own. Joseph submits, and it is implied that he does so without hesitation or reservation.

He begins the journey of obedience facing trial after trial. Packing up and heading to Bethlehem for a census, assisting in the birth of the Savior of the world in a cave doubling as a barn because there was no room to stay anywhere else, packing up again to flee the the slaughter of sons ordered by a power-hungry king, saving the son he loved as his own. Weighed down with anxiety, he accompanies Mary back to the temple where they find the son they thought they'd lost. He watches Jesus mature, from the first glimpse of His face at His birth, to the wise and strong young man he helped raise, knowing all the while the life of difficulty he would endure.

Joseph is a simple man. A man who, being an expert in building things with his hands, became himself a tool in the hands of the Father, shaping history in a way no one else ever has and no one else ever will.

A quiet man. A docile man. A man quick to do what he's told.

...What are demons so afraid of?

Humility: unwavering and prayerful trust in God's wisdom. More specifically, humility which refuses to publicly shame a woman in a culture and time in which it is considered appropriate to stone her. Humility which accepts the gift of a child not biologically one's own, to raise and care for as if he was. Humility which gives itself wholly to the will of God, quietly pondering the righteous path apart from the noise of the world and culture which might tempt him away from it. Humility which cannot be moved to jump into the plans of Satan to leave God's Son and His mother stranded, starving, and possibly even dead.

Where demons bring chaos, St. Joseph remains at peace. Nothing is more terrifying to forces which depend on fear, restlessness, and hesitancy.

"Terror of Demons," pray for us now and at our death, that we may fulfill the will of God in this life and be wrapped up in the love of God in the next.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Set Me as a Seal: Tattoos and the Eucharist

The first time I internally realized Who the Eucharist is, I was completely awestruck.

I was at Mass at the local college's Newman Center chapel, sitting in the second row, sort of off to the side, daydreaming. I stared blankly at the white wall, drool probably forming a puddle in the pew in front of me as I knelt during the consecration. I don't remember exactly what I was thinking about, but it probably had something to do with how much I couldn't wait for this all to be over so I could go on with my life. And then, I heard the same words I'd heard a thousand times, and will hear thousands of times for the rest of my life:

"Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world."

My eyes shifted from the white wall to the Host held above the priest's head, and I lost my mind. I was given an overwhelming awareness of the presence of God, not only in, but as the Communion host before me. Trembling, I fumbled my way through the Communion line, worried the entire time that I would fall to the ground before I got to the front. And then, there He was, right in front of my face. My heart pounded before its Master; "My Lord and my God."

I returned to my seat in a daze, and if I recall correctly, I started to cry. I felt so loved, so blessed, so honored that the God of the ages would become so small, so vulnerable, that He would unite His flesh to mine. "Set me as a seal on your heart." Song of Songs 8:6

When people have asked me why I have tattoos if my body is a temple, I have had a difficult time processing what they're asking. When I think of a temple, I don't think of plain, untouched walls. Even the white-walled Newman Center chapel I mentioned earlier is riddled with religious art and icons and statues and even a stained glass window. Catholics are in the habit of decorating sacred spaces, not to degrade them, but to let all who enter see for Whom it is set apart.

So, it makes sense to me that every time I've wanted a tattoo, it's been because I want a permanent, visible reminder of Who I belong to, and who my body is set apart for. If my body belongs to Christ, let it be marked for Christ; if my body is a temple for the Holy Spirit, let its walls speak to His glory and power. "Set me as a seal on your heart, as a seal on your arm." Song of Songs 8:6

My body is a tabernacle; my Lord dwells here, physically, at least every Sunday, and sometimes during the week, in the gift of the Eucharist. I am glad to have the indelible marks of the sacraments on my soul, but I need indelible marks on my flesh, as a reminder to me and a sign to everyone who sees me that I belong to Jesus and not to this world.

My tattoos, in a way, unite my flesh to the concepts they represent. They remind me that Satan can be beaten, that God never gives up on me, that God keeps His promises even to broken people, and that God has power over the darkness in my life which is often suffocating.

My tattoos are not distractions from the purpose of my body; my tattoos enhance my experience of the One to whom my body and my soul belong.

And even more than my tattoos unite my flesh to the concepts they represent, the Eucharist unites the flesh of God to my own. This reality dazzles me, and I want nothing more than to surrender my whole flesh to the Lord who fashioned it. Just as churches and sanctuaries are often filled with statues gazing upward, paintings drawing us in, and relics kept in altars, let the marks on my body serve to remind all who see them who the Lord of this body is, and Whose House it is. Let them remind me that God is good to me, that He comes to save me, that His desire is for me, that the yearning of His flesh and soul is to be in communion with my own. Let them serve the same purpose as works of art in any other temple belonging to the Lord.

And let me never forget that even should I die and the stars be thrust to the earth and the mountains crumble to dust, the love of the Lord for me will remain forever, more permanent than ink and deeper than every layer of skin.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Fourth Sunday of Lent: In the Dead of Night

"Now, there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night..." John 3:1-2a

The Pharisees and Jesus did not get along. The Pharisees were a group of Jews determined to follow strictly the rule of the law of Moses in their actions in hope of bringing about the Messiah, but miserably failed to live up to the law's standards and purpose in their hearts. They felt threatened by Jesus (ironically, because He is the Messiah), and constantly barraged Him with questions about the law to test His knowledge of it, and when they thought He had broken a law, or saw His disciples breaking laws, they were the first to confront Him, many times in broad daylight, and every time to no avail.

But one particular Pharisee wasn't threatened by Jesus so much as He was curious about Him. Nicodemus knew, though, that his curiosity could not be revealed to his fellow Pharisees if he wanted to keep any manner of calm in his life, and so, in order to escape their judgment and wrath, he decided to go out in the dead of night to meet with Jesus and question Him about His teachings -- not mercilessly, as his comrades were in the habit of doing, but as a student would question a teacher.

Wearing the night as his cloak, he set out to look for Jesus. When he found him, he approached him and displayed his fledgling faith: "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." (John 3:1-2)

Encircled by the veil of darkness he preferred to seek Him in, Jesus recognized an opportunity to use Nicodemus's experience as a means of teaching Him. After hearing and answering a few of his questions, He confronted him: "The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."

In spite of his cowardice, Nicodemus's actions in this story are in fact very commendable. He may be hiding, but he's coming to Jesus -- coming to the light. He may be afraid, but he's looking for answers. During the day, he may be a member of a league of religious elitism famous for hating Jesus, and who would eventually have Him put to death; but when nighttime has settled in, he willingly becomes a student of the Master.

It is a great comfort to know that, even when we're living a life on display before others that causes us to experience significant inner turmoil, Jesus can be found in our inner darkness. He willingly meets with us to listen to our questions and even responds to them with the reality of God's love. In fact, it's from this story that the most famous Bible verse in the world comes:

"For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that anyone who believes in Him may not perish but have everlasting life." (John 3:16)

These words which changed the world were not the subject of a great sermon; rather, they were delivered quietly and personally. Jesus wasn't shouting across a crowd when He spoke them; He was making eye contact, and probably speaking in a very hushed voice. This was a conversation lit only by starlight and street lamps, known only to the two involved. Private.

This is the Jesus we meet in darkened room of our hearts. Not a God who mercilessly and publicly scolds us, but a God who teaches us the way of mercy. Jesus confronts our fear and struggling with the message of light, and assures us that its burning against our fear is one of love and not of wrath. We don't need to be afraid of the darkness in our lives if we're willing to meet Jesus within it.

Nicodemus is often thought of as a coward, but in reality, he is an example of faith; not as flashy as the faith of Abraham, and not as fearless as the faith of Paul, but faith nonetheless. A subtle faith, dependent entirely on the help of Jesus (as all faith is), yet strong enough to break the darkness. He is a witness to all of us that Jesus is worth finding, even when our circumstances leave us terrified of seeking Him. And, who knows...if we're willing to seek Him in our darkness, He may share something with us that will change the world forever.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Because God is Good: My Completely Unwanted and Unprovoked Response to Universalism and Annihilationism

In the world of Internet apologetics and mainstream Christian thought shared casually through daily activities in face-to-face conversation, I've noticed two theological ideas gaining momentum in the modern church: universalism and annihilationism. While the latter can be the result of believing that God is super just-galore in the terms of our human understanding of justice (read as: muahaha vengeance), both views seem to be picked up in my experience as a result of a refusal to acknowledge that a loving God would willingly allow human beings to suffer. This is an understandable discomfort with the question of hell, and I certainly don't fault anyone for being hesitant to believe in an eternal place of fiery damnation imposed by a loving God on those who do not love Him back. Largely because I don't believe in that kind of hell either, and also because I think it's fair to say God is pleased that His children expect more of Him than a false brand of love which is only feelings-deep and lasts only until it's unrequited.

When I say "universalism" here, I mean to refer to a theological approach to salvation within the world of Christian thought, and not the philosophical concept of universalism (which is basically irrelevant to this post). In the Christian world, universalism refers to the doctrine that ultimately all people will be saved, regardless of anything on their part, entirely because God wills to save all. It is an incredibly attractive concept and seems, at face value, to work quite well with the Gospel of grace. This idea is entertained and expounded on by people like Rob Bell, especially in his book "Love Wins." People who subscribe to this doctrine typically do as a result of not believing that a loving God would allow anyone to spend an eternity in hell even if they wanted to (because who, they wonder, would really want to?), and that He opts instead to bring all human beings into heaven at some point or another.

Annihilationism is a bit more tricky. Where universalists can't comprehend why anyone would sincerely want to be apart from God for all eternity, annihilationists at least admit that it is possible for a soul to come to the end of their life either not desiring heaven or not deserving it as a result of rejecting God's grace. I've noticed two thought processes in this camp: the first being that God would never allow someone to suffer for all eternity, so those souls who do not wish to spend eternity with Him are literally annihilated (how 'bout that?) upon their death, and simply cease to exist; the second being that God in His justice actually kills the wicked by annihilating them. (I admit the first of the two seems to be the more popular approach these days, and it is the one I plan to address, but I didn't want this entire piece to go without at least mentioning that second approach.) Regardless, in annihilationism, there is no eternal suffering because there is no eternity for the damned. They die an earthly death followed by a spiritual end. They completely cease to exist.

The ideas are appealing, aren't they? After all, who wouldn't want to believe in a God so loving that He brings all people to eternal life regardless of their background or their choices? Who wouldn't want to believe in a God who ends a person's suffering rather than placing them in eternal suffering for the rest of forever? Who in their right mind would reject the existence of such a God?

Well. Me.

Why? Well, it's really quite simple for me. Let's start with universalism. Where others can't wrap their brains around a God allowing someone to suffer for all eternity, I can't wrap my brain around a God who would impose Himself on someone who sincerely didn't want to be around Him. And I do, very fervently, believe that this type of person exists, mainly because I used to be one of those people. After I came to believe in Jesus and experienced about a year of Christian bliss, I found myself in a very dark place. I had given God permission to heal my wounds and discovered that the first step in healing a spiritual wound is removing the bandage and performing serious surgery. Like a volcano, all my devastation and heartbreak caused by my sins and the circumstances of my life which led to them came oozing up from the quiet depths of my heart. God stopped working as soon as I stopped wanting Him to, but the wounds were still open, and what had come out from them was still there. It was like endless soul vomit. It was disgusting. It was horrific. It was too much.

For a number of months, I wanted nothing to do with God. I hated Him. I admit that. He disgusted me, and on top of that, I was terrified of Him. I couldn't understand why He would have allowed any of this to happen to me, and I couldn't understand why He had allowed all this to bottle up inside of me. Knowing now that those things aren't His fault or His doing did nothing for me back then, and I wanted nothing more than to be apart from Him for all eternity. I longed for hell. I yearned for hell. And I was, effectively, living hell on earth. I was miserable. I was wrecked. I was isolated in the pits of my trauma.

And I preferred the darkness of my heart to the light of God's face.

I once heard Fr. Robert Barron compare hell to a person confined to a dark room having the curtains peeled back before their eyes, the glowing sunlight pouring in before them, onto their face, flooding over into every corner of the room. Sunlight is good, but to such a person, it is painful. A more concrete example of this is the fact that Jews had to avoid the Arc of the Covenant lest they die. God's very presence in the face of their sinful, unredeemed humanity was simply too much for their fragile existence to bear. They died. They suffered. So it was with me, and so it is with anyone who dies preferring to remain apart from God for all eternity.

Because God is good, and because God loves and only ever loves, He does not impose Himself or His presence on those who do not desire it, not because He wants to harm them, but precisely because He doesn't, and He knows His presence to them is more painful than the state of agony which they prefer.

C.S. Lewis, who brilliantly stated that God can't grant us happiness apart from Himself because it simply does not exist, also stated that "The door to hell is locked from the inside." The souls in hell aren't there because God wants them to be. They're there because they want to be, and God loves them enough to respect that.

Where universalism contradicts the concept of a truly loving God, annihilationism not only contradicts the concept of a truly loving God, it contradicts Who God Is. God is the source of life, the author of life, and as Jesus proclaimed, Life itself. Not only that, but He created human beings in His own image, breathed His own life into them, and calls us His children. My opposition to annihilationism is quite simple: a loving Father doesn't kill His children, whether they'll suffer or not. It springs from the same place in my Catholic heart that says euthanasia is wrong and abortion is wrong: killing people so they won't suffer contradicts human dignity. Life isn't valuable because it has the potential of being good someday. Human life is valuable because it is human. Humanity is valuable because God created humanity as a model of Himself. God is good, and He created us because our existence is good. God does not un-create, especially not something as good as a human being created in His own image and likeness. Humans, as the image of God, possess an irrevocable dignity, and the same God who loves us too much to force Himself on us also loves us too much to trespass our dignity; we are free to choose, and God will never kill us for our choice.

It would do us well to keep in mind that hell isn't a place of deliberate torture and punishment. Hell is a place of suffering because it has no other choice. When human beings separate themselves from God, they suffer, because human beings were made to live in relationship with God so that God could share His joy, love, and peace with them. To separate ourselves from His joy, love, and peace means separation from joy, love, and peace.

I have no doubt that in God's infinite mercy He saves as many souls as will let Him, and I have little doubt that there will be many more souls in heaven than there are in hell. But rest assured, dear reader, that the souls in hell are not there because God desires to punish them. They are there because they sincerely prefer it. He thirsts for us and for our love, and He has no greater desire than to be united with each one of us in an intimate, loving relationship. Universalists, annihilationists, and I all agree: God does not send people to hell. I simply believe He allows them to take themselves there.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Third Sunday of Lent: Christ Crucified vs. Christ the Salesman

Jesus was all too familiar with the pleas of skeptics in regard to His ministry, power, and purpose. He was asked for miracles, healings, and on a few occasions was directly asked "What sign can you give us?"

One instance of this is this Sunday's Gospel reading, which opens with a mildly terrifying telling of the cleansing of the Temple. Jesus went up to Jerusalem and found that the Temple had become the scene of a sort of marketplace, with some selling things for profit and others purchasing things for personal gain according to their desires. Jesus responds to this in a way which shocks many readers: by making a whip out of cords and driving the animals out while commanding the people to get rid of everything else. The Gospel reports that he dumped their money out onto the ground and flipped over their tables. Basically, Jesus was not happy, and had no problem making a total mess of the way they wanted to misuse the Temple.

In the next part of our story, Jesus is asked, "What sign can you show us for doing this?" The witnesses of this display are concerned by Jesus' unabashed and (they presume) arrogant show of authority over the Temple. They want to know who He thinks He is, and they want a sign, some sort of proof that He has the power to do what He's just done.

His response is simple: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."

The Jews are confused. They protest that the Temple has been under construction for years, and no man could possibly rebuild it in three days' time. But the passage goes on to explain that Jesus' disciples later realized He had been talking about the temple of His body, which would be crucified and raised again in three days.

The sign we're given as proof that Jesus has authority to profess that the Temple is not a place for bargaining is His crucifixion. In our current world, it's easy, I think, for Christians to get this image of Jesus in their heads that makes Him into a sort of "take what you like and leave the rest" sort of God; a marketplace, so to speak, where we can give Him what we think He can afford, and take from Him what we think is a good deal. This idea that we don't have to accept the whole of Who Jesus really is, that we can accept His love and mercy and kindness, and leave out His desire to be loved in return, His hope that we will find life and peace in His commandments which are the words of everlasting life (as our Psalm this weekend expresses), and accept His kindness and ignore His plea to see His face in the poor and downtrodden.

We forget that Jesus didn't come to be Santa Claus. He didn't come to give good things to all the good boys and girls and coal to all the bad boys and girls. He didn't come with a table display of items up for sale in exchange for small fragments of our lives. He came to show us our failure, offer us hope, and die as the ransom for us, all of us, our whole selves, to win us back from sin and death. He does all three of these from the cross. Our failure is shamefully displayed on the cross, in the wounds of Christ which distort Him, the Scriptures say, into something that doesn't even look human anymore (much like our sin does to us). Our hope is proudly exclaimed from the cross: "It is finished." Jesus tears the veil between God and man by drawing man to Himself in the embrace of man's suffering as His own. And obviously, His death on the cross is the death He died for our sins. He didn't die on the cross so we could take what we want from Him and leave the rest.

The Soldiers Casting Lots for Christ's Garments by William Blake

We don't worship in a temple that allows us to use it for whatever we feel like using it for. We don't belong to a religion that we can turn into something selfish, something purely for our own gain with no regard to the purpose of the faith or the way our choices affect other people. We don't worship a God who doesn't care if we do whatever we please without considering the ramifications.

But we do worship a God who had to die in order to save us from the mindset that brought us to those things in the first place. We proclaim a God who is unafraid to shake things up in our lives if it means we might have a Temple to rest in, worship in, and find hope and peace in, rather than the chaos of our inner give-and-take mentality. We proclaim a God who confronts our selfishness with the ultimate act of selflessness.

In our second reading today, Paul puts it quite succinctly: "We proclaim Christ crucified."

Monday, March 2, 2015

Please stop pretending Jesus was a jerk.

The Gospel message is clear: God loves us, even in our sin, and gave His only Son to die our death so that we may share in His life. This is the most important message any individual can possibly receive in their life: in spite of your sin, God loves you and gave Himself up for you, to restore your life and give you a share in His own, if you choose it and will it by turning from sin and accepting grace in exchange.

God forgives. God forgives. God forgives.

But that seems to be second to another, false message to many Christians today:

You're not good enough. You're not perfect enough. You're flawed, so you're not accepted by us.

Setting aside the fact that this is the opposite of the Gospel, allow me to translate a famous Gospel story into a 21st century Christian Facebook thread:

When the Pharisees saw that Jesus associated with sinners and tax collectors, they were totes scandalized and asked His disciples, "Why does your teacher dine with sinners?" To which the disciples replied, "Ugh, right? What the hell? Doesn't He know He's supposed to tell them to go and sin no more and never find Himself the least bit associated with them until they've become completely perfect by some impossible means apart from being brought to His mercy and healing? Doesn't He know He's more demanding than He pretends to be? What about 'Go and sin no more,' right?"

During Jesus' time, to eat a meal with someone meant to associate yourself not only with their company but with them as a sort of facet of your life and identity. The Pharisees would never have dared to share a table or a meal with sinners. But Jesus did. And they judged Him for it...hard.

Why did they judge Him? Simple: He associated with sinners. He entertained their company and accepted their invitations into their homes. And the Pharisees lost their freakin' minds.

A trend I've observed in recent Christian failtempts (fail+attempt, it's like "that's so fetch," it's gonna be a thing) at evangelization is an OBSESSION *twitch* with pointing out that JESUS-TOLD-THE-WOMAN-CAUGHT-IN-ADULTERY-TO-GO-AND-SIN-NO-MORE!!!!!!!11oneone

As if the most important takeaway from the passage is His rebuke!


This passage is GROUNDBREAKING! We don't even appreciate the scandal involved, the audacity of Jesus to respond the way He did to the situation. Despite apparently popular misunderstanding (or at least, application), the story does not go this way:

"The law says we should stone such a woman...what do you say?"

It goes this way:

At first, Jesus doesn't say anything; He draws something in the dirt. When He's questioned again, He gives one of His most famous responses: "Let the one among you without sin cast the first stone." One by one, the accusers leave, until finally the woman is left alone with the Lord.

"Where are they who accuse you?" He asks her. We can only assume her voice was weak and fragile and frightened: "There is no one."

And then, Jesus gives what I firmly believe is the most fundamental piece of the passage: "Neither do I condemn you." He follows with, "Go, and sin no more."

WELL HOW TERRIBLE! He kept that "Go and sin no more" bit for AFTER saving her from being judged and scolded and killed, and then had the NERVE to tell her He didn't condemn her! Didn't He realize she hadn't even repented yet? If she had, it sure wasn't publicly -- leaving her totally open to and available for judgment! What is this tenderness, mercy, love, compassion? This isn't the real Jesus!!!!

Oh. Wait.

This is the Jesus people ignore, because they want to use Jesus as something to beat people over the head with who sin. Who aren't perfect. Who sin differently than they do.

"Go and sin no more" is undeniably an important and irreplaceable piece of salvation, of meeting Jesus. But note that it comes after forgiveness. After healing. After being saved from death.

"Go and sin no more" is an invitation. It's an invitation to come and live. "Go and sin no more" is only possible for someone who has encountered and been enabled by the grace of God. "Go and sin no more" deliberately follows forgiveness and healing.

This woman was so touched by Jesus' compassion that she turned her whole life around; it was His mercy and tenderness and care for her as a human being that brought her to receive "Go and sin no more" in awe. Her obedience was not brought about by a rebuke, or a scolding; her obedience was the result of having been loved so much.

As Jesus' disciples, our job is to carry people to Jesus, just as the friends of the paralytic carried him to the house where Jesus was. Simply going around spouting "Go and sin no more!" does no good for anyone. Stop telling people to "read the next verse," and consider reading the whole passage. Let yourself be caught up in awe at the majesty of God's compassion and tenderness; His deep concern for sinners, particularly those who are judged.

There's another story of a sinful woman in the Gospels. A woman known to be a sinner comes to Jesus and washes His feet with her hair and tears. Simon Peter is aghast, and asks Jesus why He is letting a sinner touch Him. Perhaps we could put this quote of Jesus to memory, and conform our lives accordingly:

"The one who has been forgiven much, loves much."

Let's act like it.