Cruciform Calisthenics

by Jason Micheli

Length: 28:03

Galatians 6.11-18  (click to see Scripture text)

September 26, 2021

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In his book, Two Cheers for Anarchism, the political philosopher, James Scott, tells a story of a sabbatical he took in Germany during which Scott attempted to learn to speak better German by interacting with pedestrians in the street, shoppers in stores, and waitstaff at cafes and bars. 

Scott reflects upon one afternoon in a small German city in which he observed pedestrians at an intersection near the train station. A traffic light signaled for pedestrians when it was legal and when it was not legal to cross the street. 

When Scott walked up to the intersection, he noticed that the entire group of sixty to seventy-five pedestrians  waited in obedience to the traffic light even though no cars were to be seen on the small town road. Intrigued, Scott decided to remain at the intersection and investigate. After over five hours of observation, Scott reports that he saw not more than two people— out of several hundred— disobey the traffic signal in order to cross an empty street. Moreover, those two pedestrians who did disobey the traffic light and unlawfully cross the intersection received scornful looks and reproachful comments from their fellow pedestrians. 

Scott comments that he had to screw up his courage and risk the crowd’s contempt by crossing against the traffic light in order finally to catch his train on time. He justified his law-breaking performance, he notes, by telling himself that his German-Christian grandparents could have used more of a spirit of law-breaking in the name of justice. But because his grandparents’s generation had lost the practice of breaking small laws, Scott writs, they no longer possessed the discipline to recognize when it truly mattered to break more meaningful laws; that is, they lacked the discipline to suffer the reproach of their fellow citizens. 

Scott refers to this practice of small law-breaking and discrete acts of disobedience as “anarchist calisthenics,” and he comments that “the Germans could’ve used a hell of a lot more anarchist calisthenics in the 1930’s.” 

We all feel the urge to conform; it is the most normal of human desires. 

It goes against our nature to go against the crowd. 

———————-

“See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.”

Throughout his Letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul personifies such terms as Sin and Death, making them the subjects of verbs as though they have an agency in the world of their own. In a similar manner, Paul speaks of the Law as though it were an enslaving adversary and writes, mysteriously, of the Powers. 

It’s not until the close of his epistle that Paul pulls back the curtain and reveals to whom all of these auspicious terms point. At the end of Romans 16, Paul announces, “The God of peace will in due season crush Satan under your feet.” 

Romans needs to be read backwards in order for Paul’s letter to come into clear focus. Likewise, it’s only at the end of his angry diatribe against the false teachers in Galatia, declaring anathema anyone who would add the Law back on to the Gospel, that the Apostle Paul makes plain the problem that has produced the false teachers’s counterfeit Gospel. “See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!” Paul writes in verse eleven; in other words, what’s to follow is the ALL CAPS underlined takeaway from his email to the Galatians. 

“It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—IN ORDER THAT THEY MAY NOT BE PERSECUTED FOR THE CROSS OF CHRIST.” 

It’s not simply about self-justification; it’s about self-preservation. 

It’s only here, at the end of his letter, that Paul spells it out fifty point font. 

The false teachers are compelling believers in Christ to go back to Moses for the purpose of avoiding the persecution of the Cross. The motivation for their ersatz message is evasion. With their false gospel, they hope to sidestep the suffering that might attend the true Gospel. 

Persecution from who? 

And how?

We know from Pliny the Younger’s letters to the emperor that Rome at the time of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians regarded Christians as little more than an odd burial society. 

The Church wasn’t yet in Caesar’s crosshairs; furthermore, Rome had no stake in whether or not this insignificant band of Jesus followers underwent circumcision or made the Law of Moses a necessary component of their Gospel. 

Jewish persecution is the only kind of persecution circumcision and Law would help you avoid. 

Remember—

In the first century, every Christian was either a convert from paganism or a convert from Judaism. And everywhere outside of Jerusalem the Body of Christ was comprised of both Gentile-Christians and Jewish-Christians of whom the latter insisted the former should have to undergo circumcision and follow torah. 

They need to become like us.  

Because Christ died for all, the logic of the Cross demands that the Church show solidarity with Gentiles, who previously were regarded by God’s people with contempt and suspicion. “In Christ Jesus,” Paul has already argued, “you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” 

The implications of the Cross are such that these preachers should stand in solidarity with the Gentiles, requiring nothing of them but faith in Christ, but they are not willing to suffer the consequences of their convictions. The false teachers added the Law back onto the Gospel in an attempt to avoid suffering for the sake of their Gentile neighbors. Rather than provoke the reproach of their non-Gentile neighbors, they opted to preach “a different Gospel which is no Gospel at all.”

It’s not surprising. 

It goes against our nature to go against the crowd. 

We all feel the urge to conform; it is the most normal of human desires.

———————-

John Archibald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Birmingham News. 

He grew up in Alabama, the son of a successful Methodist minister, Rev. Bob Archibald, during the most turbulent years of the Civil Rights movement. However, John Archibald did not know he was growing up during the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement because his father, the reverend Bob Archibald, assiduously avoided any mention of the struggle for racial justice. Having been a public school student in Birmingham and later a history major at the University of Alabama, the first time John Archibald ever read Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail was when he started working as a metro reporter for the Birmingham News and wanted to learn more about the city. 

“I was born in the midst of revolution. The son of a preacher, the grandson of preachers. The great-grandson of preachers, too. They preached on horseback and on foot and—in my dad’s case—in a little white Fiat Spider. They preached of right and wrong and grace and goodness and believed it, I think, to their bones. In the name of God and something they called sanctifying grace, they preached in the Old South and longed for a New South, but were silent, too silent, on the complicit and conspiratorial South I never came to see until I was fully grown.”

Only when he began work as a reporter for the Birmingham News— in 1986— did Archibald discover that Dr. King’s letter, like Paul’s own letter, was intended to rebuke false teachers; in King’s case, the letter was a rebuke of white moderate preachers like his Bob Archibald. 

“The point of the letter was the rebuke. For retreat, in the name of peace. For obedience, in the name of law. For silence, in the voice of God. The point of the letter was shame and disappointment, and a truth so deep and ingrained that some people look at it for a lifetime and never see it at all. The point of this letter was not a message to Black people. It was a message to cautious and careful white people, like the members of my family, who thought they understood. It was to people just like mine, who tried to live like Jesus but turned the other cheek only to look away.”

In his book, Shaking the Gates of Hell: A Search for Family and Truth in the Wake of the Civil Rights Revolution, puts the journalistic spotlight on his father’s ministry, examining the pages of his father’s sermons alongside the pages of the newspaper, comparing what was happening in the South and with what his father was preaching at the time. 

Rev. Archibald’s sermon manuscripts exude the warmth and gentleness of a pastor rather than a preacher whose sermons “will shake the gates of hell” (John Wesley’s definition of good preaching). Reading his father’s sermons, John Archibald wrestles with the realization that his Dad was the kind of preacher who in their modest, folksy Methodism, gave aid and comfort to a society that gave African- Americans hell. Rev. Bob Archibald was unwilling to upset his congregation, many of whom were his friends, with the truth and who therefore avoided suffering the persecution of the Cross. 

For example, as Congress debated the Civil Rights bill, Rev. Archibald preached on snobbery. The Sunday after the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing four little girls, Rev. Archibald stepped into the pulpit with a sermon bearing the ironic title, “Too Late.” 

John Archibald writes that, sadly, his father’s sermon that Sunday was “a tepid treatise on missing the boat, which itself missed the boat.” 

The Sunday after the Children’s Crusade, as thousands of children sat jailed in Birmingham— arrested by Bull Connor, a Methodist in good-standing— Rev. Archibald preached a sermon on having the trust of a child. Reflecting on his father’s anodyne sermon, John Archibald writes, 

“There was no mention of arrested children in that message, no acknowledgment of crusades and retribution, or protest, or inequality, or the fact that any of those things were in debate. There was only the notion that good Christians “must become like little children in many ways.” But Christ means for us to be childlike not childish. Christians should be childlike in their candor, their willingness to speak truth without fear of offense, without counting of the cost of truthful speech…”

It goes against our nature to go against the crowd.

It’s survival instinct. 

———————-

It’s hard to read Rev. Bob Archibald’s sermons and not consider my own preaching. God, I think, I hope my sons never grow up to be journalists. The Sunday after George Floyd was murdered one of you called me on my cell phone later that afternoon to tear me a new one. 

“I cannot believe you could preach as though nothing had happened. I’d be more likely to trust the Church if there was just a hint in church of all the great and horrible things that were happening outside the Church.”

“Hey, cut me some slack. It’s an online worship service. I recorded that sermon two weeks ago,” I said truthfully. 

But truthfully, when George Floyd was murdered and unrest was unleashed across the country, I was relieved to have already recorded my sermon and I counted myself lucky that I was out of town that Sunday visiting my niece. 

When I did finally mention George Floyd in a sermon, I suggested that racism is a theological issue, and I said that the cross compels us to worry less about the feelings of white people like me, who know not what to do with our complex legacy as genocidal slave nation, and to worry more about how with every George Floyd we attempt to explain away we crucify Christ anew. The Monday after that Sunday I came to the office only to find a long, heated message waiting for me on my voicemail from a church member informing me they were leaving the church. Another voicemail bellowed that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization and wondered on what Sunday will I express my support for Hezbollah. Two other callers called to tell me they would stop giving to the church. By the Tuesday after that Sunday I had received fourteen emails criticizing me bringing politics in to the pulpit, half of those emails were from people outside the church who listen to the sermons from other parts of the country— people who, they told me in ALL CAPS and angry face emojis, would never listen again. 

It all almost made me wish I hadn’t crossed the street against the light. 

Even more unpleasant than responding to angry rebukes, though, is the recognition that—my speaking Christian so seldom is sufficiently truthful as to provoke such reproach and hostility. 

———————-

“From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the mark of Jesus branded on my body.”

At the beginning of his Letter to the Galatians, Paul asserts his apostolic authority by appealing to his encounter with the Risen Christ. Now, at the end of his letter, Paul once again puts his foot down, but this time Paul points to the mark of Christ which Paul bears branded on his own body. 

While it’s true that Paul’s preaching has led Paul’s listeners to whip him with thirty-nine lashes on five different occasions. And three times Paul’s hearers beat him with rods. Still another time, after Paul’s sermon they stoned him and left him for dead. But those bruises and smoothed-over scars are not what Paul’s referring to when Paul refers to the mark of Christ branded on his body. 

Paul is instead harkening to the the provision in the torah, in Book of Deuteronomy (15.16), a provision for emancipated slaves who nevertheless choose to remain bound as slaves to their master. Under the Law such slaves who choose to remain slaves would be “branded;” that is, they would be marked out by a hole pierced through their ear. To the false teachers in the churches throughout the region of Galatia, to those preachers who’ve diluted the word of the Cross and concocted their own Glawspel message as a means of conflict avoidance, to them the Apostle Paul says finally, “I carry the mark of Jesus branded on my body.” 

In other words:

I chose to be Christ’s slave so I’ll take the consequences of my convictions. 

What did you think you were signing up for exactly? 

You don’t have to be a Christian. Christians are made not born. 

You have to be born again into this life. 

If you don’t want this life, fine, but you can’t have it both ways. 

Don’t turn it into something it’s not. 

There’s simply no way of following the Crucified Jesus that doesn’t require your readiness to carry the Cross. 

Notice how Paul speaks of the Cross here at the end of his epistle. Paul does not speak of the Cross as an episode in Christ’s biography nor as the necessary prelude to the empty grave. Paul speaks of the Cross as significant in and of itself, yet Paul does not speak of the Cross as a moment in the past nor as an event for our sins. Here at the end of his angry letter, Paul speaks of the Cross as a our stance towards the world. For Paul, the Cross is our whole attitude in the world. Because Christ, the servant of all, died for all, there is no one with whom we are not in solidarity. Because the one who died for all is the Lord of all, we live as no other lord’s subjects— even to the point of suffering the slings and scorns of our neighbors, especially even the neighbors who are our friends and family. 

Christ’s Cross, Paul makes clear here at the end, was the price to pay for representing a new way of life in world that did not want a new way of life. 

Not only does the world still not want his way of life, Jesus still stubbornly summons those he’s called to take up their crosses and follow him. 

What did you think you were signing up for? Perhaps you can’t be held responsible for your confusion. After all, we no longer pierce ears to signify our slavery to the Crucified God. Instead, we baptize. 

I realize that it can sound daunting to proclaim the word of the Cross and to follow Christ in a world that still prefers to crucify him. I understand that to suggest being a Christian necessarily entails the readiness to suffer for our convictions can seem impossibly overwhelming. I mean, who wants to tell the truth all the time about every circumstance? That it’s on us to carry forward the cruciform way in the world—look, I get it. 

But to the extent such a form of following frightens us, to the degree to which it seems daunting and overwhelming to live fully the implications of the Cross in our world— that we would show solidarity with everyone and be the subject of no other lord or power— to the extent discipleship frightens us, we betray our functional atheism. 

Because we do not follow Jesus apart from Jesus. 

God is not no-where in our world. 

Jesus never stopped forming his disciples to be a people in the world capable of making his way intelligible to the world. He’s still forming his followers in a manner no less real than the way he formed Peter or James or John. 

God is not no-where in the world. 

He’s here, in bread and wine. He’s in the water, with which earlier we baptized a little girl Brynne. He’s in the Word, giving himself to us so that we might learn the wisdom and develop the discipline to cross against the light when the moment matters. 

Bread and wine. Water and Word. Worship. 

It’s a cruciform calisthenics. 

It’s training, through which the Living Christ is forming us to be his truthful speech to the world. 

God is not no-where in the world. 

He’s here, in these creatures of bread and wine and water and word, summoning us still to take up our crosses and forming us to be able to do so. 

Which means:

Even though it’s against our nature to go against the crowd, because God is not dead; he’s here, as real to you as he was to Peter or Andrew— it’s never too late for us to disobey the light, to cross the street, to speak the truth, to suffer the consequences of our cross-shaped convictions. 

———————-

For example—

I’ll get emails about this, but it’s what I signed up for. 

John Archibald, the journalist at the Birmingham News, his older brother, Murray, married a man named Steve in their church in Delaware in 2012.  

The couple had founded a ministry for LGBTQ youth in Rehobeth Beach. 

Seeing his son’s faithful, monogamous, loving, costly relationship with Steve, gave Rev. Bob Archibald the courage to speak out in defense of “the full inclusion of Gay and Lesbian people in the United Methodist Church.” 

At the 1992 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, “in front of all the Methodist preachers and laypeople who were quoting the Bible to condemn gays and lesbians and his own son,” quiet, self-effacing Bob took to the floor and with a clear voice declared, “It is not a choice, and it is not a choice for us either. Jesus said to love. And love is unconditional.”  

When Rev. Bob Archibald returned to Alabama, he was condemned and threatened. 

“One preacher told him to his face that he had known the Archibald family for generations and had respect for all of them. “Not anymore,” the man said. “Not anymore.’”

In his book, John Archibald reports that his father learned something in receiving the fierce, angry responses: “He found that it didn’t bother him. It didn’t bother him at all.”

Rev. Bob Archibald followed his witness at that General Conference with another one in 2019, writing a sardonic Op-Ed in his son’s newspaper entitled, “Methodists Don’t Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out.”

The preacher of that tone-deaf, people-pleasing, conflict avoidant Glawpsel sermon, “Too Late,” had discovered that, because our Crucified Lord is very much alive, it’s never too late to pick up a Cross. 

11 See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! 12It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. 14May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which* the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.15For* neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! 16As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.

17 From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.

18 May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters.* Amen.

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