Friends in Low Places

by Jason Micheli

Length: 26:16

Acts 1.1-11  (click to see Scripture text)

May 16, 2021

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Frank Dunham was a career prosecutor and defense attorney here in Washington DC before becoming the federal public defender for the Eastern District of Virginia in 2001. 

In the summer of 2006, Frank’s wife, Elinor, wandered into my office one morning. 

“I was in the sanctuary,” she said, as though I required some explanation, “praying…I’ve never done that before. I’ve never done this before.” 

Ellie was in our database but I’d never seen her in church before. After hemming and hawing, she finally opened up about this. I’ve never done this before. 

Her husband, Frank, just sixty-four years old, was dying of brain cancer. 

“I’m afraid he’s in denial— I think we’re all in denial. Would you go by the house and talk to him? Is that something you do? Frank’s got that look he gets during a trial when he’s afraid he’s going to lose the case.”

When I paid my first pastoral call to him, Frank was still strong enough to greet me at the door and reluctantly gesture me into the house like I was the Schwann’s salesman. 

As I followed him into the kitchen, Frank offered up the disclaimer, “I’ve not been a very good member of the flock, preacher. Once I got the Golden Rule down, I figured there wasn’t much else to it other than a community I didn’t need, platitudinous sermons I couldn’t stomach, and activities I didn’t have time for.” 

“You know,” I said, “there’s more to Christianity than the moralisms you learned as a kid in Sunday School. 

He laughed like he didn’t believe me, at all. 

So I tried a different angle. 

“You know, I was planning on being a lawyer— took the LSAT and got into good schools and everything. Lord knows it probably suited my personality better.”

“What happened? Why didn’t you? The money surely would’ve been better.”

“Jesus came to me. As sure as you are here in front of me, Jesus showed up and told me I needed to do this instead.” 

Frank stared at me for a few moments like I was a witness on the stand and he did not want to ask me a question to which he didn’t already know the answer. 

“Well, I’d say that sounds crazy, but if you’re smart enough for law school maybe this isn’t a complete waste of my time.” 

He motioned for me to sit down at the kitchen table. It was covered with newspapers, the Washington Post and the NY Times opened up and flattened out. 

The crosswords for both papers had already been completed, in ink. 

The bottom ring of his mug had left coffee stains on the pages. 

I could tell from the way the coffee stain rings circled the page that Frank had been studying the stories about the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the attacks on September 11. 

And that’s when Frank told me how he had been Moussaoui’s lead defense lawyer until he’d become too ill to continue. 

As Frank went on to share with me the highlights from his curriculum vitae, it became clear that now that he was nearing the end of his life he was coming up against the question of whether his life, the sum of it, justified him. 

He stood up from the kitchen table and, in his bathrobe and slippers, shuffled over to a framed picture on the wall. 

It was the courtroom artist’s rendering of Frank in court during a case, Frank, in chalk or colored pencil, standing before a judge. 

He pointed to it like the image could be the dust jacket for his entire life story. 

“When I get to the pearly gates, will it be enough? The good I’ve done, is it enough?”

And this is the difference between being a counselor and being a pastor, between being a rhetorician and being a preacher— a witness—because (though it would’ve been much easier) I did not tell him what he wanted to hear. 

“No, of course it’s not enough.”

He’d been expecting me to say something sweet and sentimental, a cliche, a lie. He pushed his glasses up his nose and squinted at me. 

“You’re right,” he said, “Maybe your personality’s better suited for something else.” 

“You could live another sixty years or try two thousand more righteous cases,” I said, “but in the Courtroom that matters, before the Judge, the good you do will never be enough. In fact, the Bible says all our good works don’t amount to anything more than filthy rags.” 

He looked at me like I’d smacked him. 

“I’ve always heard that it’s our good deeds that ultimately matter.”

“I’ve no doubt you’ve heard that,” I said, “But if that’s all you’ve heard, you haven’t heard the Gospel and, therefore, you haven’t ever been a Christian.”

And now that I had his attention, I gave him the goods, the good news of Christ Crucified who goes up today and sits at the right hand of the Father for you. 

———————-

Like Moses on Mt. Sinai, the Risen Christ has been teaching his disciples about the Kingdom of God for forty days. 

Despite enjoying the advantage of more than a month of personalized, post-Easter Bible study with Jesus, they nevertheless suffer our same lack of imagination. 

“Lord,” they ask Jesus, “is now the time you’ll restore the kingdom to Israel?” 

Lord, is now the time you’ll throw out the Republicans, throw out the Democrats, and put our politics in place?

But Jesus responds to their questions about power and politics by speaking about witness, bearing witness. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,” Jesus says, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 

And then, Luke reports, as they’re looking upon him addressing them, Jesus is lifted up and a cloud takes him from their sight. 

Even before they celebrated the nativity, the first Christians celebrated the Ascension. 

Despite its status as a high, holy day on the liturgical calendar, the capstone to the Easter season, and despite enjoying its own clause in the creed, there’s not much visual material with which to work in scripture. 

St. Luke is the only evangelist who attempts to illustrate the ascension, and he does so in two places, in his Gospel and in the Book of Acts. 

All together it’s less than a dozen Greek words. “While Jesus blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” That’s how Luke describes it at the end of his Gospel almost as an aside. 

How can such a spare image carry the burden of what Martin Luther called “the present-tense of the Gospel promise?” 

Just reading Luke’s two brief accounts of the ascension of Jesus Christ, Luther says, you would think that the ascension is for Jesus Christ and not for you. “We might wonder,” Luther preaches in his Ascension Day sermon, “what good is it to me that our Lord ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father, for I am still here on earth amidst great tribulation and distress.” 

Not only is it not clear from Luke’s reporting how the ascension bears upon our every day lives, there’s the embarrassing physics of the image. 

A former teacher of mine, the theologian Robert Jenson, jokes that if ever there was a New Testament text in desperate need of demythologizing it’s this picture of Jesus being lifted up into the air like he’s drank too much fizzy lifting drink. Jesus, the first astronaut, going up, up, up and away. Exit stage heaven.

You could argue that the Ascension is the perfect example of everything that is wrong with Christianity in the modern world. It’s a primitive, superstitious picture in a rational, scientific world. 

As the Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin said of his mission to space in 1961, “I looked and looked and looked, but I didn’t see God.” 

God’s not up there, above the clouds, beyond the firmament. 

We know this. 

The outdated imagery is actually not a problem. 

As Luther says, if all we had of the ascension was Luke’s two accounts, the story would be of no use to us. 

The meaning of the ascension for us, Luther writes, is not in what Luke shows us but in what David and the Apostles tell us. 

What makes the ascension gospel is not how Jesus goes to sit at the right hand of the Father. 

What makes the ascension good news is what Jesus goes to do at the Father’s right hand for you. 

———————-

According to the Book of Hebrews, Jesus Christ ascends to the right hand of the Father not to chillax until he comes again in glory and not, having done his part on the cross, to watch over you and keep score of how well you do your part. 

According to the Book of Hebrews, the Jesus who died for your sins, the Jesus who was raised for your justification, sits at the right hand of the Father to intercede for you. 

It’s not just that Jesus is the friend of sinners. 

It’s that sinners have a friend in a very high place. 

Or, like Garth Brooks, Jesus has friends in low places, and he sits at the Judge’s bench to advocate for them. “Christ holds his priesthood permanently,” writes the author of Hebrews, “because he continues forever. 

Consequently, Christ is able to save to the uttermost those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” 

Christ is able to save to the uttermost those who approach God through him, since he lives [now] to intercede for them. 

As Robert Jenson writes, “Those bereft by Christ’s death were not given new life by a sheer fact that he was alive somewhere and somehow but that he was alive to be their advocate before the Father.” 

This is why the creed doesn’t skip from “the third day he rose from the dead and will come to judge the living and the dead.” 

A few months ago I met with a church member struggling with a particularly acute and rare and spiritual form of obsessive compulsive disorder. 

He could not control the sinful thoughts that kept popping up into his head, he explained to me, and the more he tried the more control those thoughts had over him and the more omnipresent those sinful thoughts became the more he worried about God’s anger and judgment and despaired of his salvation. 

And if the creed simply skipped from Christ’s resurrection to Christ’s return, I might have had no Gospel word of comfort to offer him.  

“You don’t need to worry what the voices in your head say,” I told him, “because all God heeds is what Jesus says to him about you. In Christ, you have a perfect advocate.”

Many Christians miss this— 

Jesus Christ is more than your pardon. 

Jesus Christ is more than your coming judge. 

Jesus Christ is your mediator. 

Right now.

He’s more than your past-tense forgiveness. 

He’s more than your future-tense lord. 

He is now, present-tense, your advocate. 

And you certainly don’t deserve such a defense, it’s still grace all the way down. 

This is what it means to be a Christian. 

It’s not to have him as your example or guide. 

To be a Christian is not to pray or try to live like Jesus or love your neighbor or read the Bible or go to church or give to the poor. 

Those can all be manifestations of you being a Christian but they do not make you a Christian.

To be a Christian is not to have him as your example or teacher, it’s to know him as your intercessor, it’s to cling to him as your advocate, it’s to trust him as the one who stands continually between you and a holy and righteous Judge. 

If you think of salvation purely negatively in terms of pardon and forgiveness, then you only have one half of the Gospel. 

The Gospel is also positively that Christ is your righteousness, Christ is your worthiness, Christ is your goodness and beauty and value before God the Father. 

The Gospel is not just what Christ takes from you— your sin. 

The Gospel is also what Christ gives to you— his mediation, his intercession, the credit and defense of his permanent perfect record, a pro bono advocacy he assumes for you when he ascends to sit at the right hand of the Father. 

———————-

The courtroom sketch of Frank before a judge was from another another 9/11 case for which he’d been counsel for the defense, arguing the habeas corpus case of Yaser Esam Hamdi all the way to a victory at the Supreme Court. Hamdi was an American citizen captured in Afghanistan as a Taliban combatant. 

In Hamdi vs. Rumsfeld, Frank had argued that the Bush administration did not have the authority to imprison an American citizen indefinitely without trial. 

No matter what Hamdi may have done, Frank argued, the Constitution demanded he receive due process. 

I remember in one of our conversations I asked him, “Were you surprised you won the case?” 

And Frank shook his head. 

“No, I knew we’d win. A just case is an infallible case.” 

In his first epistle, the Apostle John writes, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 

Notice, John doesn’t use the language of mercy. John doesn’t say God is faithful and merciful to forgive us our sins. 

John uses the language of justice. 

Jesus Christ is not up in heaven, sitting at the right hand of the Father, pleading for mercy for you. 

Rather, in the ascended Christ you have an advocate who not only demands justice but he has an infallible case— on account of his cross. 

As the Book of Hebrews continues in chapter seven, “Christ our Intercessor has no need, like the high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he made a perfect sacrifice, once for all, when he offered up himself.” 

In other words, it’s as if the ascended Christ is like Johnnie Cochrane at the right hand of the Father, saying to the Father, “You demand justice, God. You are a just and holy God. And my friend_________ is guilty. They have fallen short of the glory of God. The wages of sin are death. But I have made payment for them. Here is my blood. Here is my cross. Here are the holes in my hands and my feet. It would be unjust for you to receive two payments for the same debt. Therefore, Father, for my brothers and sisters, I am not asking for mercy. I demand justice. Your very justice, your very righteousness, demands your complete embrace and acceptance of these sinners as sinners in perpetuity. If the cross remits, you must acquit.”

As Luther said, to be a Christian is not to look backwards to the cross attempting to believe that it covers us too. 

Rather, to be a Christian is to trust that Jesus Christ himself has gone up to sit at the right hand of the Father and he points back to his cross and insists that it covers even you. 

———————-

David Martyn Lloyd-Jones was an evangelical leader in the Church of England and the pastor of Westminster Chapel in London for thirty years until his death in 1981. In one of his Westminster sermons, he said: 

“To make matters quite practical, I have a very simple test for people to see if they have yet grasped the Gospel. After I have explained the way of Christ to them, I say, “Now, are you ready to call yourself a Christian?” Very often, they’ll hesitate. I’ll then ask them the reason for their hesitation. Just as often, they will reply, “Well, I don’t think I’m a good enough person yet. Look at my life, I don’t think I’m ready to say I’m a Christian.” And then I know they still haven’t understood the Gospel. They’re still thinking in terms of themselves. They have to do it. They have to be good, do good, etc. 

It sounds very modest and humble to say “Well, I don’t think I’m a good enough person to call myself a Christian.” However, this is the very denial of the Gospel. The very essence of the Christian faith is to say “Even though I am not good, he is good and his goodness is good enough for me.” As long as you go on thinking the Christian faith has anything to do with your own goodness, you are denying God. You are denying the Gospel. You are denying the essence of Christianity. And— because only his goodness is constant and unwavering— you will never be happy with yourself nor patient with others.”

———————-

Frank’s memory faded as the tumor pressed against his brain; so that, each time I visited him before he died we had some version of our first conversation. 

He’d show me his press clippings and courtroom sketches, and he’d tell me of the undeserving clients for whom he’d toiled. 

And every time he’d ask, “When I get to the pearly gates, will it be enough? The good I’ve done, is it enough?”

And each and every time, I’d break the news to him. 

No. 

Even Jesus says that if you are not as perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. 

But the good news of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ is perfect. 

His good work is enough for you too. 

He is your enough-ness. 

As Paul writes to the Church at Rome, “To the one who does not work but trusts in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”

In our last cogent conversation, I told him, “Look, Frank, essentially the Gospel is that in Jesus Christ you have a thousand dollar an hour attorney who has an infallible case and who stands before the Judge demanding you go free. You can either trust this lawyer who can’t lose and who you could never afford on your own, or you can trust yourself to make a case. But to hold on to your good works, to hold out hope that they’re persuasive enough— well, that’s like going into court without an advocate.” 

And Frank laughed, “Defendants who represent themselves are damned fools. They never know it but they’re doomed.”

Maybe it’s because his memory finally faded. 

I like to think it’s because the Gospel finally clicked for him, but he never again asked me about the pearly gates. 

———————-

Hear the good news:

Jesus Christ is more than your past pardon. 

And Jesus Christ is more than your future lord. 

Jesus Christ is your advocate. 

Right now.

And he has ascended to sit at the right hand of the Father in order to remind the Father that because of his intercessory work, because of his perfect, once-for-all sacrifice, because of his substitution in your stead, living the life you should have lived and dying the death you should’ve die— on account of Jesus Christ, God’s justice demands grace for you. 

No matter what you’ve done or what you’ve left undone. 

In every instance, for every sinner— no exceptions or qualifications or conditions, never any danger of double jeopardy— God’s justice now demands grace. 

For you. 

Case closed. 

Acts 1.1-11

1:1 In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning

1:2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.

1:3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

1:4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me;

1:5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

1:6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

1:7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.

1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

1:9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

1:10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.

1:11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

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