by Jason Micheli
Matthew 5: 1-12, Romans 5: 6-10 (click to see Scripture text)
My son, Gabriel, took this photo in October of 2018 on Opening Night of the comic book movie, Venom.
Let’s just say it wasn’t Oscar-worthy. We went to see it, because Gabriel and Dewayne, the friend on my right, conspired together and chose it.
When he was 25, Dewayne was charged in the murder of a police officer and cashier during a botched robbery of a cash check store in Houston. Upon his arrest, Dewayne had insisted that he’d been at home alone and that his girlfriend, whom he’d called from a landline in his apartment, could verify his alibi. The phone record was never recovered, and the prosecutor threatened Dewayne’s girlfriend with contempt, which meant she’d put her child at risk in the foster care system if she did not revoke her testimony.
Dewayne fit the profile for a convenient scapegoat and an easy conviction.
He’d grown up poor. He’d dropped out of school in the ninth grade. His skin was the right color.
So, a Texas doctor ginned up Dewayne’s IQ from 67, which qualified him as mentally handicapped, to 70, which qualified him for exection.
Despite any forensic evidence whatsoever or eyewitness corroboration, an all-white jury sentenced Dewayne to death in 2003. He spent the next twelve years in a 60-square-foot single cell. Once a day, he had been allowed to stand in an open-air room a little larger than his cell to catch a glimpse of the sky.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who weep, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are those who are persecuted…
On my left in the photo is my friend, Brian.
Dewayne had already been on death row for two years when he met Brian, a fast-talking, wise-cracking white-collar defense attorney in D.C.
Brian’s firm took Dewayne’s appeal pro bono— it was the altruistic, do-gooding case that law firms like to use for advertising and hiring pitches.
Neither Brian nor the firm considered the possibility that Dewayne was innocent; that is, not until Brian flew down to Houston in 2005 and looked through the glass into Dewayne’s eyes as he maintained his innocence.
After that initial interview, Brian walked out of death row and threw up in the prison parking lot, realizing the liklihood that he would not be able to save an innocent man from death and that he would carry that guilt to his own death.
Brian gave the next decade of his life to freeing Dewayne. The case jeopardized Brian’s career. The time away and the depression almost ruined his marriage. The Job-like injustice stretched Brian’s faith to the snapping point.
Blessed are the peacemakers…
Blessed are those whom people ridicule and persecute and utter all kinds of evil because of me…
We empathize with innocent victims, because we’ve all had the experience of receiving unfair or perhaps even unjust treatment. We praise those who stand in solidarity with victims, and we admire those who advocate for them for justice. We especially esteem those who seek to rectify wrongs in the face of long odds and little reward.
While empathizing with victims and advocating for justice are attributes of those people who constitute the Kingdom of God, empathizing with victims and advocating for justice are not uniquely Christian concerns.
Long before the invention of hashtags, Allah in the Qu’ran promised blessings upon you who work for justice and look out for the put upon. The call-out culture on Twitter is predicated on showing solidarity with victims and standing up to victimizers. Every religion, philosophy, and ethical system the world has ever known makes distinctions between good people and bad people, the just and the unjust, victim and victimizer.
But Christianity cuts against the grain of every other religion. Christianity is absolutely unique when it comes to distinctions. The Gospel, in its most radical form, is so offensively inclusive that the Apostle Paul has to acknowledge it at the get-go of his correspondence, admitting that our message risks tripping up religious people and sounding like foolishness to unbelievers. And at the top of his letter to the Romans, Paul has to preemptively stipulate that he is “not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God for salvation.”
What about the Gospel sounds like foolishness?
You might have noticed that the Beautitudes are divided into three discrete groups.
The first four Beautitudes describe those who lack (wealth, joy, power, and righteousness). Next, the Beautitudes list those who give the grace they’ve been given (“Blessed are the merciful…blessed are the peacemakers…”). Finally, the Beautitudes address those who suffer as a consquence of their service.
The word Jesus uses each time is makarioi. It has the force of a verb. It delivers something. When Jesus says makarioi, He’s giving it over.
He’s not saying, You’re blessed, if you’re poor. He’s not saying, If you’re sick with grief, the good news is you’re blessed.
This is more than Jesus offering thoughts and prayer to the hurting and hopeless. This is Jesus saying, I am with you. I am on your side.
The New Testament scholar, Frederick Dale Bruner, says the Beautitudes should be translated instead, “Look up, you who are poor in spirit, I am here, taking your part, and the Kingdom I bring is especially for you.”
Look up, you who are mourning. Look up, you who are persecuted…you who are without power. I am here, taking your part, and the Kingdom I bring is especially for you. God helps those who cannot help themselves.
Which all sounds like inoffensive, unsurprising, garden-variety good news until you take a look at that fourth Beautitude again, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Recall that what those in the first section of the Beautitudes share in common is their lack.
Hunger and thirst here in the fourth Beautitude functions in the sense of starving.
Blessed are those who are completely empty of any righteousness, for they will be filled.
And when you remember that the word for righteousness, in Hebrew and in Greek, is the same word as the word for justice, then you can begin to sense why Paul feels the need to issue disclaimers about the offensiveness of the Gospel.
This is Harris County Assistant District Attorney Dan Rizzo.
Former District Attorney.
Last year, his former office filed complaints against him, saying in their case:
“Prosecutors are supposed to be the guardians of justice in the search for truth in every case. We believe he abused his power and violated his sacred oath of office.”
By luck or providence, Brian discovered that DA Dan Rizzo had hidden the phone record, which corroborated Dewayne’s alibi.
He also had a letter sent to Dewayne from a witness, the details of which would’ve cleared Dewayne, but the prosecution never told Dewayne what it said— Dewayne can’t read. In other words, Dan Rizzo was guilty of sending Dewayne to his death knowing his innocence from the very beginning. The evidence that exonerated Dewayne was discovered in 2013. Dewayne wasn’t released from prison until 2015 when the State of Texas decided not to retry him.
“Look up, you who are unjust and corrupt, I am here, taking your part, and the Kingdom I bring is especially for you.”
Is anyone else uncomfortable yet?
Near the end of his life, the famous British biblical scholar, F.F Bruce, was interviewed about the relationship between his academic study and his evangelical faith. “What does it mean to be a Christian?” the interviewer asked him, “What does it mean to have faith— in what does a Christian put their faith?”
And Bruce responded without even needing to think about it:
“A Christian is someone who believes in the God who justifies the ungodly. To believe in him who justifies the ungodly, and nothing more and nothing less, is to be a Christian. That’s what a Christian puts their faith in.”
Jesus shows in the Sermon on the Mount what Paul says here in Romans 5, “While we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”
Paul says it again in Chapter Four, “the one who, apart from works, trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. As justice.”
Every religion the world has ever known is predicated on getting ungoldly people to turn to religion, so that through religion they might become godly. And if they don’t turn to religion, if they don’t cease being ungodly, there’s no Good News for them.
For Paul, the Gospel is something else, entirely. The Gospel is not religion. The Gospel is the announcement that in Jesus Christ God takes the initiative, turns to the ungodly, and justifies them.
When Paul says later in Romans that Jesus Christ is the end of the Law, the consummation of the Law, he has the justification of the ungodly in mind. He means that the whole Bible has been building to this revelation, and by revelation Paul means that we could never have arrived at this belief on our own. It had to be disclosed to us by God himself.
It had to be revealed to us that God is not just a God on the side of the poor and oppressed, the righteous and the peacemakers— that’s what every religion believes. But the Gospel makes the offensive and audacious claim that God is also on the side of the irreligious, the immoral, and the unjust.
These days we use words and phrases like “inclusive” and “All means all.”
I’ve served four other churches, since I was twenty-two years old.
Every one of those churches insisted that they welcomed everybody, and it was true of not one of them.
Just like us, those churches had trouble tolerating people who could read the same Bible and land on a different position. They had difficulty dealing with people who could read the same newspaper and draw a conclusion opposite their own or make a different decision in the voting booth. Diversity always sounds like a wonderful notion until you realize it means some sacred cows must be sacrificed.
When the lay leaders at my first church considered changing the style of the worship service from traditional to contemporary, OH MY LORD, I literally went outside one weekday and painted over the tagline on the sign that read, “The Friendly Church.” I didn’t want to get sued for false advertising.
None of us is reliably welcoming of everyone.
Not one of us is all-inclusive when it comes to inclusivity.
Just as often, in the hands of sinners like us words like “inclusive” and “tradition” become a way for us to make distinctions between righteous and unrighteous and— let’s be honest— very often we make those distinctions with an air of self-righteousness. Chief among sinners, right here.
The irony though—
From the point of view of Paul’s Gospel of the justification of the ungodly, all our talk in the United Methodist Church about inclusiveness is not nearly inclusive enough.
The Gospel is Good News for victims, yes, but also for the victimizers, for the oppressed, of course, but their oppressors, too. For the just certainly, but it does not exclude those who are completely devoid of justice. They also will be filled.
And that verb “to justify” is the most important word.
It’s Paul’s favorite word.
Paul doesn’t say that in Jesus Christ God forgives the ungodly; in fact, Paul hardly ever uses the word “forgive.”
It’s not, Look up, you who are unjust…District Attorney Rizzo, free pass….
The Gospel is offensively inclusive, but it is not immoral.
Paul doesn’t say God forgives the ungodly. Forgiveness doesn’t go far enough; the word “grace” isn’t radical enough to our ears. Paul says that in the cross of Jesus Christ, God justifies the ungodly. Again, it shares the same root word as the words righteousness and justice, dikaiosyne.
God makes just those whom God justifies— that’s what the Gospel does, Paul says.
The justification of the ungodly then is the power of God. It’s the power of God to make right all that is wrong.
Again, Paul believes God justifying the ungodly is what the whole Bible has been building towards, not just the Beautitude.
The justification of the ungodly is what the prophet Ezekiel foreshadowed when he said,
“God himself is able to remake the hearts of his people, and he promises to do so in them irrespective of ungodliness.”
God himself is able.
God will do it.
Which begs the question: If it’s all God’s initiative and work, then is there nothing for us to do?
Humbly, I’d respond that if you’re stuck on that question, you do not yet know the grace of God.
This Gospel message frees you from the tyranny of the thought that everything depends on you, and that freedom sets us free to enter in and actually engage the radically inclusive ministry of the justifying God, which we would never choose for ourselves. Will Campbell was a Baptist preacher and civil rights activist, who died a few years ago. He’s the author of Brother to a Dragonfly and Up to Our Steeples in Politics. Will Campbell was present in 1998 for the Mississipi trial of Sam Bowers, the Grand Imperial Wizard of the Klan, for the murder of several people including Vernon Dahmer. The murders were the inspiration for the film Mississippi Burning. Dahmer had been a brave local leader in the voter registration effort. He burned to death, defending his home, as his wife and children ran to safety.
Bowers was tried a third time in 1998, the first time his trial would not be a sham trial. Will Campbell attended the trial every day. He would sit on the prosecution’s side with the Dahmer family, offering comfort and praying with them. And then, the next day he would sit on the defense team’s side, comforting Bowers the Klansman and praying with him. Day after day of the trial, Campbell alternated sides, ministering to the family of the victim and then the victimizer.
When the trial was over, a flummoxed New York Times reporter asked him, “Mr. Campbell, why do you seem to be on both sides?”
And Campbell answered in his trademark salty way, “Because I’m a God-damned Christian.”
Even more remarkable than Campbell’s retort— Vernon Dahmer’s family, Christians all, never once asked Will Campbell how he could be on both sides.
There is much in me that needs to be rectified.
There is much about me that I look forward to our Lord setting right.
I honestly cannot imagine myself capable of Campbell’s radically inclusive ministry.
When I think of what DA Dan Rizzo did to Dewayne…I could never do it.
When it comes to that sort of righteousness, I am empty.
But God is able.
And Jesus Christ, who is not dead, promises to fill you.
So come to the Table and, in your hands and on your lips, receive the God who justifies the ungodly.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.