Critical Grace Theory

by Jason Micheli

Length: 27:08

Galatians 3.23-29  (click to see Scripture text)

August 8, 2021

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During the first week of Advent in 1977, two weeks after the theatrical release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a pastor from Immanuel Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod drove his way cautiously through an early winter blizzard to Lima Memorial Hospital in northwest Ohio. 

Like Nicodemus, the pastor came in the dead of night. 

In secret. 

A small determined grandmother met the pastor at the elevator outside the maternity ward. 

Spying the clerical collar beneath his winter coat, she introduced herself and then led him back to the new mother’s room. 

With a small, silver pitcher and a pink, plastic bedpan— he’d brought the one, a harried nurse had provided the other— he prayed over the water.

“Pour out your Holy Spirit,

to bless this gift of water and him who receives it,

to wash away his sin

and clothe him in Christ’s righteousness…”

And then he asked the two of them, mother and grandmother, the confession of faith, culminating in the final question: 

In accepting the responsibility for this child, you are bearing witness publicly that this child has been baptized and that God is creating in him saving faith. It is your responsibility then, henceforth, to remind him of his baptism…Do you intend gladly and willingly to assume this responsibility? 

As prompted, they answered him, “Yes, with the help of God.” 

And then he baptized me. 

I didn’t grow up in a religious home. Save for a single, shot-gun wedding, I had never before been inside a church. When I was seventeen I was encountered by the Risen Christ— as real and alive as you are to me right now— and I put my faith in him and I became a Christian. But I was baptized as a baby because it was important to my mother and to her mother, and they both feared that my father, who is not a believer, would stand in the way. So that pastor came in the middle of the night and secretly baptized me into Christ. 

Or, as the Apostle Paul puts it today, put Christ on me. 

I only learned that story in the last year. I never thought to ask my mother about my baptism, but when I finally did ask she told me that story. As soon as she did, a memory I vividly recalled but never quite understood clicked into place for me. 

I remember— 

I was sitting on my driveway playing with my G.I. Joe action figures. My grandma was pulling weeds in our flowerbed. I know I was in kindergarten because we only lived in that house for a year. So I was five years old. 

It was trash day. Our gray garbage cans were curbed. I was staging a surprise attack of the Joes against Cobra Commander’s secret base when the garbage truck pulled up in front of our house. The guy hopped off the back and started rolling the cans to the truck and, for whatever reason, I pointed at the garbage man and I said, “He’s a_______.” 

And I used the N-word. 

I don’t know if he heard me over the truck’s diesel rumblings. 

But my grandmother heard. 

I didn’t even see her get up. Before I noticed her standing over me, she smacked me— hard— across my face and then, in that whisper-yell that only grandmas can really do, she said, “You’ve put on Christ. Don’t you ever talk like the devil with Christ on you.” 

I never forgot that moment, but I never understood it, not until my mother told me about my baptism last year. 

———————-

But why had I done it? 

How do you explain racism on the lips of a kindergartner? I grew up in a family where that word was never thought so much as spoken. Nevertheless, that foul word ended up on my five year old lips. I had a toy in one hand and, with the other hand, I had pointed my finger at a black man and I had drawn a distinction between him and me. And distinctions are always appraisals of worth.

How do you account for prejudice present in such a tiny person?

My peers? Maybe. Their parents? Possibly. The media? Perhaps. 

But, according to the Apostle Paul none of those potential explanations are big enough. They’re insufficiently supernatural. According to Paul, none of the isms that divide and oppress— racism, classicism, sexism— can be understood properly apart from the Gospel of grace. Because they’re not simply character flaws or impoverishments of education. 

They’re powers. 

———————-

“The Law was our disciplinarian,” Paul writes today, “until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.” 

This gets at one of Paul’s chief arguments with the false teachers in Galatia. By muddling the Gospel with the Law, the false teachers’s have misconstrued the transitory nature of the Law. Their Glawspel message obscures the fact that the purpose of the Law was temporary.

The Gospel is not simply the arrival of another word. 

The Gospel is the arrival of a new age. 

“But now,” Paul writes in verse twenty-five. 

Paul loves big buts. 

In all of his letters, this adversative phrase (“but now…”) signals the change in situation that occurs because of the apocalypse of Christ. But now signals the turning of the ages that arrives with the advent of the messiah, from the old aeon to the new. But now signals the transformation of identity and belonging that comes through faith in the Gospel, from the Old Adam to the New Adam. 

Paul loves big buts. 

Here the Apostle uses But now to insist to the believers in Galatia that, on account of Christ and by faith alone, what we are is altogether different from what we were. 

We were under the Power of Sin. 

But now— we are in Christ. 

“But now… as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. Therefore, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Now notice— 

There are only two sides to Paul’s big but. That is, according to the apostolic gospel, there are only two options for describing the reality of every day life for every single soul under the sun. Either you are under the Power of Sin or you in Christ. 

You’re either under the Power of Sin, or you’re in Christ. 

That’s it. 

There’s no room for a third agnostic option, Well, I’m not a believer but I’m basically a free and good person. No, and this is because the Power of Sin is a Power. Either you have been delivered by Jesus Christ, clothed with his righteousness and incorporated into him, or you are a subject under the dominion of a Power determined to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. There’s no third possibility because the Power of Sin is a Power. An agency at odds with God. 

Just after today’s text, Paul calls this Power “the elemental spirits of the world.” To the Church at Corinth, Paul calls this Power, simply, the Enemy. 

Writing at the end of his Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul warns, “our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the cosmic powers of this present darkness…” In the four Gospels, Jesus refers to this Power, alternately, as Satan, Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, and the Father of Lies. 

Now, as a good liberal American, I’ve been reliably informed that Jesus supposedly came to be a good example, teach us helpful life lessons, and to encourage us to work for social justice; however, the Apostle John says, as clear as it is inconvenient, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” 

As we acknowledge at baptism, all of Christ’s activity is a conflict with the devil, and all those who are in Christ are conscripted into this conflict even as they are being contested over.  

“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness…?” we ask at the font.

And yet— 

Even as I use this language, I can see some of your sphincters tighten in embarrassed discomfort.  After all, we’re sophisticated, modern people. We go to doctors for our healing. We go to Facebook for our news. At least half of us trust scientists. 

We are what the sociologist, Max Weber, called demagiced. Our world has been disenchanted. Our scripture has been demythologized. And many of us are busy deconstructing our faith. 

The devil?

We’re well-educated, modern people. 

Despite the fact we can no longer even agree on the truth of an event we’ve all seen with our own eyes, like the insurrection at the capitol, we’re much too enlightened— we tell ourselves— to believe in an outdated, premodern myth like the Father of Lies. 

You may not believe in the Principalities and Powers, but Jesus did. And there’s the rub for all of us functional atheists. You can’t really call Jesus your Lord while also calling him a liar. So we’re stuck with the Bible, and, according to the Bible, there is another unseen agency at work in the world. 

But now!

Faith has rescued us out from under the Power of Sin and into Christ Jesus where “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female…”

Karl Barth says that just as we know Christ by his benefits, we know Satan by his detriments.

Meaning—

Under the Power of Sin, there is Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. It’s under the dominion of Sin that we make distinctions. 

———————-

In twenty years of ministry, I’ve only withheld the sacrament of holy communion a few times from a couple of people. 

One of the lay leaders in my first congregation in New Jersey was a retired teacher and principal named Sheldon. Every Sunday, Sheldon dressed in a three-button suit, bright bow tie, and tortoise shell glasses. Sheldon never missed a Sunday and always brought with him his partner, Dan, with whom he’d lived, “married,” for decades. 

Sheldon frequently volunteered to help serve communion. Not long after the bishop appointed me there, I noticed that Kim, a middle-aged woman with a long brown ponytail, two kids, and, seemingly, an axe to grind on any number of issues, would hop out of the communion line and duck into a different communion line, pulling her kids along behind her, every time she was in line to receive the body or the blood from Sheldon. By no means was this a church large enough for her demonstration to go unnoticed, and certainly not by Sheldon and Dan.

I spoke to Kim about it one Sunday after church. She listened and nodded, and I thought, “Wow, I’m pretty good at this pastor gig.” 

And then the next Sunday it was like her feet were asleep— pins and needles— she exited Sheldon’s communion line and entered mine like she was walking through wet cement, aware every eye in the congregation was trained on her. 

After church, I sent another lay leader, Bob, to talk to Kim. Reporting back to me, Bob seemed as impressed with himself as I had been so I wasn’t all that surprised when, the following Sunday, Kim waited until she was only two people from the front of Sheldon’s communion line and then, so everyone behind her could see, darted into my serving line with her two kids in tow. I confronted her in the narthex after everyone had spilled out onto the church lawn. Kim bit her lip and, with her cheeks blushing red, said, “I refuse to receive communion from someone like him.” 

And she pointed through the church doors down at Sheldon who was holding Dan’s hand. 

“What do you mean “someone like him?”” I asked. 

“Just look at him!” she said, exasperated, “He’s…” 

And she was about to say something worse. 

“He’s a sinner.”  

“I hate to break it to you, Kim, but so are you.” 

Her eyes lit up like she was possessed. 

“There’s no difference between him and you or me. This table is for sinners, only. What makes the body and the blood grace is not the sinner who serves it but the Word of God attached to it.”

She was shaking her head, refusing to concede my point. 

So I laid down the law. 

“If you’re going to make a mockery of the meal by refusing to receive from certain types of people, then, until you repent, I’m going to withhold the sacrament from you.” 

“What?! You can’t do that!”

“Yes, I can. And I will. Exactly what do you think my job is here? I’m not a maitre d’  or a cruise ship director. I’m a pastor. I’m responsible for your salvation.” 

She was fuming and actually stomping her feet. 

“Look at the bright side,” I said, “I could be doing you a favor. St. Paul says that if you receive the bread and the wine unfaithfully, it could kill you”

And, okay, maybe that last line was a bit too heavy-handed, but, I think I only made one mistake in dealing with Kim. 

I treated her like a problem person. 

I did not treat her like a person under the power of a Power. 

———————-

You’re either under the Power of Sin or you are in Christ. 

There’s no third option because the Powers and the Lord Jesus Christ are in conflict— what Paul calls spiritual warfare— and there’s no neutral territory. Like the Israelites in the desert drawn back to slavery under Pharaoh, even those of us who are in Christ are not immune from the pull of the Powers. Martin Luther says we are all, at once, simultaneously in Christ and under the Power of Sin. 

And, like Tolkien’s ring, that Power has a desire. 

An aim. 

And we can identify the intent of the Powers because we know the effect of being rescued from them. The effect of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, Paul says today, is the destruction of all the world’s antinomies. 

Race, Class, Gender. 

Jew and Greek— 

Paul’s already told you at the beginning of his letter that Jew and Greek are racial distinctions every bit as fraught then as black and white are now. 

Slave and Free— 

In Paul’s day, over half of the world’s population were on some spectrum of slavery. Slave and free are class distinctions.  

Male and Female— 

Those are gender distinctions and gender distinctions have always been about power. 

Grace is the destruction of the world’s antimonies. 

Why?

Because they’re hierarchies. They’re human systems of merit. Which is to say, they are our attempts to be our own saviors. 

Now— 

If the Bible testifies that all of Christ’s work is a conflict with the Power of Sin, and if the Word of God says that the effect of Christ’s work of grace is the demolition of the world’s antinomies, then that means it is the devil’s desire to take the distinctions in creation (black and white, male and female, rich and poor, gay and straight) and turn them into divisions so that those divisions turn into oppression. 

The spiritual forces of wickedness— that’s how racism ends up in a five year old’s mouth. 

———————-

Kim disappeared for a few months, every so often lighting up the grapevine with tales of my coarse insensitivity. 

But then one Sunday after Easter she came to worship by herself, sat in the back, and finally made her way down the maroon carpet holding her hands out like a beggar. 

She looked emptied of some power.

“The body of Christ, broken for you,” I said. 

Then she dipped it into the cup Sheldon was holding at my side. 

“The blood of Christ poured out for us,” I heard Sheldon say. 

And she didn’t respond, “Amen.”

She coughed out an apology, “I’m sorry.”

After worship, on the front steps of the church, I asked Kim if she’d repented. 

She shook her head, “No, I didn’t repent, I was…” 

And she grasped for how to put it. 

“I was repented.” 

And she looked almost afraid. 

Chastened with a holy fear.

“What do you mean, you were repented?”

And she explained: “I prayed and I prayed and I prayed about it. Honestly, I prayed for Jesus to change your mind. But then God answered me. I’d never heard God say anything to me before…”

And she paused, “I’m not sure I ever want to hear him say anything again.”

“What did God say to you?” 

“It’s like God said to me, “Sheldon’s put on Christ. He’s wearing the same thing as you. How dare you see him as any different from you. Stop making distinctions I died to defeat. You’re only aiding the Enemy,” Kim said, looking almost traumatized by the reality of the Living and Loquacious God breaking into her life. 

———————

There is a Will that wills in our world that is not the will of God. 

If that’s true, if what the Word of God says about the spiritual forces of wickedness is true, then not only is it unbiblical to insist that something like racism is a power in which you do not participate and not only is it a lie to suppose that some other ism is a problem that can be solved by reading the right book or supporting a certain policy or voting a different way.

If it’s true that there is a Will that wills in our world that is not the will of God and it’s desire is to divide us, then racial bigotries and class resentments and cultural antagonisms and partisan hatreds and all the rest, they are Powers that CANNOT be overcome. 

There is NO hope. 

Unless, God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead. 

———————-

My youngest son, Gabriel, recently attended a two week theology program for youth at Shenandoah University. 

Kids, rejoice I’m not your parent. 

Last Saturday, we joined Gabriel for the program’s closing worship service in the chapel. The service was a good example of why I make it a point to avoid clergy meetings and denominational gatherings. 

Nevertheless, I’m happy to report that I behaved. I did not mutter under my breath. I sighed audibly only three times. 

My wife, though, once the Great Thanksgiving finished with seemingly no awareness that Jesus’s meal with his friends ended badly for all of them, leaned over to me and whispered in my ear, “This is so progressive I think maybe they’ve progressed clear past Christianity.” 

For example, during the service the word Father was conscientiously omitted from the Lord’s Prayer as was the word Kingdom. 

It was changed to Kin-dom— because we all know families are less problematic than monarchies. The preacher made no mention of Jesus in the sermon while the communion prayer dwelt more on God’s dream (whatever that means) than on Christ’s cross and resurrection. Meanwhile, the prayers all stressed the imperative of being open and welcoming to difference so long as the people we are welcoming also listen to NPR, watch Rachel Maddow, and think and vote the same way we do.

The liturgy was like progressive Christianity on steroids, which is to say it earnestly gestured towards inclusivity while also being as exclusive and homogenous as Whole Foods or Orange Theory.

But then— 

We came to the table.

And I ate and I drank— corn arepas and yellow passion fruit juice, but never mind that. 

As I turned around from the altar to return my socially-distanced seat, I saw that behind me in the communion line was a teenager, a sibling of one of the participants. He was wearing a red Make America Great Again cap and a black t-shirt that said in a big, gaudy, in-your-face-font, “Preserve the Second Amendment.” 

I looked at him and I thought to myself, 

“Isn’t that just like the Living God? Isn’t that just like Jesus to look— with grace— upon the sinful way we draw lines and make distinctions and attempt to facelift his Body so it looks and thinks just like us. Isn’t just like Jesus to send someone like that MAGA wearing kid to receive the body and the blood from a woke pastor wearing a “Love is love is love…” t-shirt.”

Not only is it just like Jesus. In a world where there is a Will that wills that is not the will of God. It’s our only hope. 

Amen.

 

 

23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring,* heirs according to the promise.

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