Sunday, February 16, 2014

Mister Popular:
The Uncomfortable Problem of Jesus and Scripture

Jesus (left), seen here with the Bible (right).
Homily preached at SFH, 2.16.14.
I was talking to a good friend the other day. My friend told me about a recent conversation she had had with some of her friends about Jesus and the Bible. These friends really liked Jesus, she reported, but they were considerably less sure about that somewhat unseemly collection of writings called Scripture. The gist was this: Jesus is kind. The Bible is, well, kind of strange. Jesus is grace; the Bible is graceless. Jesus calls you by name; the Bible is full of names no one can say, much less remember. Jesus is generous. The Bible is judgment. Jesus loves me, this I know, and the Bible has, well, all those rules. If Jesus and the Bible go together - and these friends, at least, weren’t at all sure that they did - they only “go together” like good cop / bad cop. Or sweet and sour. Or Beauty and the Beast. Or that one time Patrick Swayze teamed with Chris Farley for an SNL skit in which they were competing for a final spot as dancers at a Chippendales night club, and Swayze, curiously, only narrowly edges his mightily overmatched counterpart.

All that baggage. All those rules, alas, has holy Scripture. But Jesus - just Jesus - now there is a spiritual reality with which we can connect.

So, Jesus, why don’t you come on up here, come and accept your trophy - the People’s Choice - in the sub-sub-sub category of faith, Christian, mainline, American, Protestant. Yes! Come on up, Jesus. Anything you’d like to say?

“Thank you for this award. It is the realization of a dream. I’d like to thank my parents, Mary and Joseph, my twelve, I mean, eleven friends. Um, the children. Of course, my enemies. Thank you all.

“Oh, and one more thing: 

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

“Thank you all so very much.”

Super. Thanks, Jesus. Wait. What?

And of course that wasn’t the worst of it. The unedited version of this culturally tone deaf acceptance speech - the extended version cut off by the strings of the orchestra pit as they cut to commercial - had matching paragraphs 1) equating anger with murder, 2) coercing reconciliation with the threat of prison time, 3) decrying divorce and its evils, 4) linking lust to adultery, and finally 5) closing with instructions on swearing, by either heaven or earth, namely, that one should never do it. All of this prefaced by last week’s disappointing corrective, when Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

Oh Jesus. We liked you. We did. But you’ve been hanging around that unsavory “Bible” character again, haven’t you? Why can’t we seem to free you, Jesus, from your chains?

We had imagined Jesus as fixing what was wrong with the law or, better yet, erasing the broken parts altogether. And, truthfully, we hadn’t dismissed the possibility (or hope) that the whole of the law was broken, might be erased. But here, Jesus reveals the law as but the preliminary sketches of the Kingdom he fulfills.

And now, this is terrible. It’s not divorce that’s the problem, but lust. It’s not murder, but anger. It’s not actual unfaithfulness, but considered unfaithfulness. What does he care what I think, what I consider? As long as I can clean up my thoughts by sun up, so long as the unholiness stays suppressed in the inactivity of my mind, so what if my thoughts are less than God’s own? Didn’t God say something somewhere to the effect that they would be? I mean, if thoughts count, what does that do to the future of cynicism? I love my cynicism. 

Jesus’s unhappy remarks about “fulfilling the law” threaten to bring to an end the many games by which, as individuals and as a society, we relativize our missteps and misdeeds by saying, “at least I’m not like the others” - the ones in prison, the murderers and thieves - thereby cultivating lives of self-deception; the games in which we obsess on the rightness or wrongness of the next decision before us, as if our next sin, our next misstep, will be our first of any consequence. As if the danger lies not in the reality of our present sin, but in the unrealized future in which we might, if we aren’t careful, someday sin. 

But my next sin won’t be my first. For me to say that my next sin won’t be my first is the beginning of truthfulness in me. 

The community that Jesus calls together around himself is a community made able to speak truthfully in a world where truth is so many times equivocated. This is why, where the Torah gives the instruction not to swear falsely, Jesus gives the instruction to not swear at all, because the people he calls around himself are never not called to truth, and so have no reason to make a special guarantee that these or those particular words are truthful, by means of an oath; all of their words are to be truthful. The words of Christians are never more truthful than when they preach the fullness of God known in Jesus; that, in Christ on the cross, God reveals the truth about God.

When we begin at the cross, questions like, “What does truthfulness have to do with lusts and angers that are really, we think, none of Jesus’ darn business?” and, “what has truthful speech to do with hunting down my rascal brother before I come before the altar?” become questions about the reconciliation St. Paul tells us God has accomplished for us on the cross in Jesus Christ. For example, anger is less a sin against the law because it could lead to murder and more a sin against the truth that God has made it possible for us to be reconciled with one another. We do not fear the law, but we long to live into the reconciliation of Christ, which is the truth about God. We long to live Christ’s reconciliation truly.

I wonder if there are places in your life where you feel morally stuck. Binary categories like good and bad are increasingly unhelpful. I wonder how you receive the news that God gives you the gift of reconciliation as the backdrop, lens, and sole criterion for even your hidden thoughts.

I wonder how the lens of reconciliation changes, or reframes, life’s challenges for you, because the goal is no longer winning and the threat is no longer losing, but the promise is that all will be made one in Christ. I wonder, for example, how the backdrop of reconciliation transforms questions of racial tensions. Madison is facing a crisis of race, disparity, and a city-wide call to a new equality. What does reconciliation capture that diversity, alone, cannot? I wonder, too, how a kingdom perspective with reconciliation at the center opens up new ways to think about familial estrangements, your own campus life, and even the mission and outreach of the people of God - Church growth, for example, not as a problem of advertisement and strategy, but as a call to reconciliation, a binding of the wounds that divide us. I wonder what it would look like, feel like, if God’s people approached each encounter and every moment with the lived conviction that the first truth is that Christ has come to heal us. We are reconciled. That Christ is making us, all of us, whole.

Christ comes to fulfill the law. So we do not stop at keeping the law, but we long - and are learning - to live into the reconciliation of Christ, which is the truth about God and, in him, the truth about ourselves and one another. And this truth, my friends, is very, very Good News.

Amen.

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