Jason Micheli

Heavens to Betsy

by Jason Micheli

1 Peter 1.6-12  (click to see Scripture text)

May 20, 2020

share this sermon

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on email

Four decades before Mary gave birth to the incarnate Word and seven decades before the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, Rome’s first heated swimming pool was built on the Esquiline Hill. 

The water park was conveniently located outside Rome’s ancient city walls. By the time of Jesus’ ministry, the Esquiline Hill had become a Conde Nast destination for some of the wealthiest people in the world. An immense expanse of villas and parks surrounded the hill. The reason the land around the Esquiline Hill had remained undeveloped for so long— for centuries, from the first days of Rome’s founding, it had been used as a dumping place for the dead. 

In fact, when laborers started constructing the pool, the Esquiline Hill still conveyed the stench from the centuries worth of corpses forsaken there. The bodies, all of them, belonged to those too poor to be laid to rest in tombs. As historian Tom Holland notes in his new book, Dominion, “Only the planting of the world’s most exotic and aromatic plants [around the Esquiline Hill] could serve to mask the taint.” The vultures which picked the bodies clean are still known as “the birds of the Esquiline.”

Above the dumping ground stood a site named the “Sessorium.” It was a place set aside for the execution of slaves and usurpers. Exposed to public humiliation, they would be hung on crosses. Even after the mass pauper grave had been reclaimed into a heated pool for the one percent, the Sessorium remained in place, the crucifixes standing amidst all the exotic fauna— as a warning. As Tacitus justified the practice of crucifixion, “After all, we have slaves drawn from every corner of the world in our households, practicing strange customs, and foreign cults, or none— and it is only by means of this terror that we can hope to coerce such scum.” 

Nowhere else can one see the difference the Gospel eventually made in the world than the Esquiline Hill. “The marble fittings, the tinkling fountains, the perfumed flower beds,” Tom Holland writes, “all were raised on the backs of the dead.” 

The poor. 

Next to the site where scores had been nailed to trees. 

Holland goes on to note how the practice of crucifixion was so foul that Romans themselves refused to “countenance the possibility that it might have originated with them.” Only a people famed for their barbarousness and cruelty could ever have devised such a torture; therefore, Romans tried to convince themselves, it must have come from the Persians or the Gauls. So shameful a death did Romans consider crucifixion that the word crux became an unmentionable four-letter word. 

But by the year 400, even among Romans, a crucified corpse had become a symbol of majesty, and in 1601 when Caraveggio was commissioned for a painting to be hung in the building originally dedicated to the Emperor Nero, a painting intended to portray the pomp and circumstance of the papacy, the artist chose to depict the Apostle Peter not in power and glory, but tortured, humiliated, stripped bare, about to be hoisted upside down on a cross of his own. 

In his book, Tom Holland argues that the cross, itself, signifies the extent to which the Christian revolution transformed the values of the world, giving dignity to the poor, seeing power in weakness and love, esteeming patience in suffering, and forgiveness for offenders. What Holland describes as the evolution of values, the New Testament describes as victory. 

———————-

Christianity did not change the world. 

The Living God did. 

And is, still. 

And will one day fully and finally.

On the cross of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul proclaims to the Colossians, God disarmed the powers and ruling authorities, making a public spectacle of them and triumphing over them. The Powers no longer have dominion, Paul says in Romans. “Take heart,” Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “I have overcome the world.” The New Age, your salvation, the Kingdom and Reign of God are nearer to us now than when we first believed. 

This is what the Apostle Peter means in verse five that the salvation that is the rule and reign of Jesus Christ, the Judge judged in our place, stands “ready to be revealed.” In other words (don’t tell Kirk Cameron or Kenneth Copeland), but the last time is already upon us and it has been since Easter morning. As the Apostle Paul tells the Galatians, the incarnation of Jesus Christ is the dawning of “the fullness of time.” Likewise, Peter preaches at Pentecost that the arrival of the Holy Spirit augurs “the last days.”

Which makes the Church, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, the messianic community upon whom the ends of the ages have already come; that is, we are the People whom God has elected to live the life of the New Age here at the edge of the Old. “The time has been shortened…” Paul says, “the present form of this world is passing away.” And the Church, we are the ones whom God, in his gracious folly, has chosen to exemplify the world to come. 

Pay attention, now:

For Peter (and for Paul), the Gospel is not that one day there will be a resurrection and things will be different. The Gospel is that Jesus Christ has been resurrected; therefore, things already are different. 

Christians practice counter-intuitive forgiveness and enemy love and non-violent patience and compassion for the poor and the unborn not as a strategy to change the world. But rather, Christians forgive those who trespass against them, Christians love their enemies, Christians turn the other cheek, Christians fill the empty with good things, and welcome unexpected children in order to bear witness to the objective fact that through cross and resurrection our Lord has already changed the world. 

The idea that when you leave church on Sunday morning you’re entering the “real world” has it exactly backwards from the perspective of the Gospel announcement. 

“In this we rejoice,” Peter says today in verse six. 

In the actuality of this Kingdom that is already and yet still is not yet— in this we rejoice. 

Karl Barth says the only difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is a noetic difference. The only difference is a difference of perception. Christians aren’t better or braver than other people. Christians aren’t any less sinful or more moral than non-Christians. Christians don’t possess a share of salvation from which others are excluded. There is a reason Christians are called believers. The only difference between Christians and non-Christians is noetic. Christians are simply those who have been roused awake by the Holy Spirit, like Neo from the Matrix— roused to the reality that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

In this, we rejoice. 

And yet, as Peter’s churches well knew—

To live according to a Kingdom that others cannot see, that others who have a vested stake in the Old Age refuse to see, is not unmitigated joy. To live according to a Kingdom that others cannot yet see can elicit anger and, as St. Yoda says, anger can lead to hate, and hate leads to suffering. The “manifold trials” Peter speaks of today are not the ordinary vicissitudes of life. Peter refers instead to the world’s resistance to the Kingdom that is and is coming. 

Those who bear crosses move with the grain of the universe, yet that does not make it easy nor does it exempt us from suffering; in fact, it all but guarantees it. 

———————-

While hunkered-down, I recently watched Terrence Malick’s new film,  A Hidden Life. There’s a limit to how much Tiger King and Too Hot to Handle a pastor should watch. A Hidden Life tells the story of Franz Jägerstätter.

Jägerstätter lived as a simple Catholic peasant from a town called St. Radegund not far from Hitler’s birthplace. When Jagerstatter was drafted by the Third Reich in February 1943, the father of four young girls, he refused to serve due to his Christian convictions. Five months later the conscientious objector was put on trial by the Reich Military Court in Berlin. 

According to the trial records, Jägerstätter testified that as a devout Christian he was unable to engage in active military service. For that matter, he testified that it was impossible for him to be a Christian and at the same time a National Socialist. God had given him the thought, he testified, that there were matters in which one was obliged to obey Christ more than man; the Commandment“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” forbade him to take up arms with the Reich, though he was prepared to serve as a paramedic.” 

When his own defense lawyer pointed out to him that many Christians served the Nazi cause without conflict of conscience, Jägerstätter replied that our unfaithfulness does not mute or mitigate by one jot or title what God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ.

While he awaited trial, Jägerstätter wrote an appeal to his fellow German Christians serving the cause of party, nationalism and tribalism, and xenophobia. “Jump off the train,” he pleaded with them, “It’s headed to hell.” 

On August 9, 1943 in a prison in Brandenburg, Jägerstätter was guillotined by the Third Reich. 

In a letter to his wife, Fransizka, written the day before he died, Jägerstätter asked her, “Do you believe that all would go well for me if I were to tell a lie in order for me to prolong my life? The oath of loyalty to Hitler is a lie. Jesus Christ is Lord.” 

During his trial, Jägerstätter went on in his testimony to denounce German war crimes on the Eastern front as well as their genocide of the Jews. Long after his execution, Jägerstätter’s fellow Austrians hid his martyrdom in obscurity so that they could continue to tell themselves they only learned of the holocaust after the war. Not until 2007, when Pope Benedict celebrated Jägerstätter, did his story become widely known. 

In another letter written the day before he was guillotined, Jägerstätter said, “I am convinced that it is still best that I speak the truth, even if it costs me my life. For you will not find it written in any of the commandments of God or of the Church that a man is obliged under pain of sin to obey whatever might be commanded of him by the leaders of this world. I am a citizen of a different Kingdom and a subject of another Lord.”

———————-

I’ve been a preacher long enough to know that probably I should pause right here and make explicit what the Apostle Peter does and does not have in mind when he speaks of the manifold trials and suffering which serve to test the authenticity of our faith. 

I honestly cannot tell you how many women I have heard over the years refer to their husband’s abusive behavior as their “cross to bear.” Even more grotesque, I’ve heard a few pastors over the years suggest as much to such women. 

But no—

When Jesus tells his disciples to take up their cross and follow him; when the Apostle Paul writes in Romans that “we glory in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us;” and when Peter writes today of being “tested by fire” so that we may praise and give God glory, they are NOT endorsing suffering of any sort and certainly not suffering of every sort. 

The cross of Calvary is not a difficult family situation or crushing debt, a nagging in-law or being told “Happy Holidays” at the coffee shop. 

Losing your job is not a “cross to bear.” 

But losing your job, because you refused, for the sake of Christ, to lie would be. 

Not all suffering is cross-bearing. 

Suffering on account of Christ is cross-bearing. 

Take the example of Virginia Durr. 

She was a white woman born to privilege in the Deep South. A native of Birmingham, Alabama, Virginia Durr was reared there in the traditions of the Old South. She was a debutante, prominent in the local Junior League, and attended Wellesley College. 

She was also a Christian. 

In 1955, during the Montgomery bus boycott, when she and her husband, Clifford, posted bail for Rosa Parks, Virginia Durr became a pariah among her class. Her husband, an attorney, lost most of his clients. When she died in 1999 at the age of 95, she was still considered a traitor by most white Alabamians. 

Not all suffering is cross-bearing. 

Suffering on account of Christ is cross-bearing. 

The cross of Calvary, as John Howard Yoder writes, “was the political, legally-to-be-expected result of a moral clash with the ruling powers of this world.” 

“Arm yourselves with that same intention,” Peter says in chapter four of his epistle. 

That is, bear the cross, conform your life— morally, socially, and politically— to the Lordship of Jesus Christ even though it will put you at odds with the moral, social, and political ways of the wider world. 

The suffering and persecution that results when we confront the kingdoms of this world with Christ’s own— Peter calls it today a peirasmos, a “purifying fire.” 

Peirasmos is the same word Jesus uses when he teaches us to pray. 

“Save us amidst the time of trial,” Jesus teaches us to pray whenever we pray.  

Every single time we pray Jesus Christ would have us pray for his help amidst the peirasmos. 

Huh. 

I don’t know about you— maybe I’m a biblical literalist— but doesn’t that maybe sort of suggest that Jesus expects his followers to be picking the right kinds of fights with the powers that be? 

And doesn’t that also kind of imply that if God’s messianic community are never experiencing a peirasmos such that we don’t need to pray for help within the peirasmos— if we’re never bearing any crosses, then is it because we’re too closely aligned with those who build crosses? 

———————-

The historian Tom Holland argues that the cross, itself, is an example of how the Gospel of Jesus Christ succeeded in inverting the values of the world. 

Maybe. 

We’ve come a long way from the Esquiline Hill, but, in case we weren’t already aware, the present pandemic has been a painful reminder to us that Rome is not the only civilization built on top of the poor. 

Year after year, surveys show that most Americans say they believe in God, but, year after year, one need only look at America to know the god in whom Americans supposedly believe is not Jesus Christ. 

During the pandemic, we’ve been serving over fifteen hundred people a week at our mission center. The ones who come are poor, undocumented, out of work, or at risk. 

It’s good Gospel work, but is it cross-bearing? 

Are we picking the right kinds of fights? 

What if, for example, when sweet, little Betsy Clevenger, our Mother Theresa of the Mission Center, handed a poor family a sack of food for the week she announced, “In the wealthiest county in Virginia, it is a sin that we’ve arranged our society such that you even need to show up here. It’s a sin that so many people who look like me only meet people who look like you during a charitable transaction like this one. We’re not giving you this food to solve your problems. We’re giving it to you to protest the world that is and to testify to a better world that is coming.” 

What if, when an emergency food referral family shows up on Tuesday, Betsy shouted from the truck through her homemade mask, “It’s a sin that in the richest nation history has ever known, you and your husband both can work two jobs and still barely afford your rent. God’s going to judge this country. Here, take this food as an outward and visible sign that a better government— not one that we choose but one that chose us, a Kingdom— is coming.”

What if, when an undocumented worker comes to the front of the line on Monday or Friday and requests eight meals for his family from World Central Kitchen, Betsy told them loud enough for all of America to hear, “Because Democrats and Republicans alike have made an idol of our political loyalties, we haven’t fixed your situation and, as a result, here you are asking for food from the church because you’re too scared of the government that relies on your labor to turn anywhere else. Here, take and eat and remember that we don’t have a President. We have a King and his return is nearer now than when we first believed.”

I doubt Betsy would get crucified if she made such announcements. But one thing’s for sure, no longer would anyone confuse the Church for just another kindly social service agency. 

If we kept at it long enough, picking the right kinds of fights— we might just become a People who need that prayer and the Gospel promise embedded in it, “Help us, Lord Jesus, amidst the time of trial.”

6In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8Although you have not seenhim, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours made careful search and inquiry, 11inquiring about the person or time that the Spirit of Christ within them indicated, when it testified in advance to the sufferings destined for Christ and the subsequent glory. 12It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things that have now been announced to you through those who brought you good news by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look!

 

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By using this website you agree to our Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy.