The Sin-Eater

by Jason Micheli

Length: 19:57

Galatians 3.10-14  (click to see Scripture text)

July 25, 2021

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In his depiction of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, during the witching hours of Good Friday, the nineteenth century French painter, Eugene Delacroix, depicted Jesus not kneeling serenely with folded hands and backlit by soft, celestial light. 

He instead painted Jesus praying sprawled flat in the dirt, almost writhing like a terrible ailment had overtaken him, stretching out his arms, anguish in his eyes, his hands open in a desperate gesture of pleading.

Delacroix rendered the Father’s incarnate Son twisted into a golem of doubt and despair; as though, he had been transfigured from God’s own righteousness into a totem of God’s rejection. 

Delacroix shows what Paul says. 

St. Matthew in his Gospel account of Gethsemane, reports that the same Jesus who had boldly predicted his betrayal and crucifixion in the garden confides to his disciples that he is “deeply grieved and agitated.” 

Or, as the original Greek inelegantly lays it out there, Jesus tells them he’s “depressed and confused.” 

“Remain here with me and stay awake, for I am so depressed I could die,” Jesus says in the literal Greek. 

And then, according to Matthew, Jesus can manage only a few more steps before he throws himself down on the ground, and the word Matthew uses, ekthembeistai, it means to shudder in horror, stricken and helpless. 

In Gethsemane, Jesus is, in every literal sense of the Greek language, scared out of his mind. 

Or, as the Book of Hebrews describes Jesus on the eve of the Passion, Jesus is “crying out frantically with great tears.” 

Matthew shows you what Paul says to you today.

Karl Barth says Jesus’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane doesn’t even count as prayer because it’s not a dialogue between the Son and the Father. 

It’s entirely a one way conversation. 

Because it’s not just that the Father doesn’t speak or answer back. 

It’s that the Son only gets an empty dial tone. God’s entirely absent from Jesus, as dark and silent to him as the whale’s belly was to Jonah. 

Barth shows what Paul says. 

Martin Luther says when Jesus gets up off the ground in Gethsemane there’s nothing left of Jesus. 

There’s nothing left of his own humanity. 

He’s an empty vessel; so that, when Jesus drinks the cup the Father will not not move from him, when he drinks the cup of wrath, he fills himself completely with us, with our sinfulness. 

At the well, the woman ran away saying “Jesus told me everything I’d ever done.” 

In the garden, Jesus walks away, filled and running over with everything we’ve ever done. 

Luther shows you what Paul says. 

———————-

I spent the summer before I started seminary waiting tables in the dining room at this posh, upscale retirement condominium in Charlottesville. 

Because I was the same waiter for the same folks seven nights week after week, I befriended some of them, especially a couple named Julian and Elinor Hartt. 

At our wedding, they gave Ali and me a French saucepan in the shape of a heart (which, I later returned for a normal shaped pot…and still feel guilty about it). 

Elinor was a famous artist, and Julian was a retired theologian. 

He’d grown up a preacher’s kid in South Dakota, and all through childhood he was the best friend of Hubert Humphrey. 

He’d taught philosophy at Yale for a number of years and then, towards the end of his career, he was recruited by the University of Virginia to head their new department of Religious Studies. 

When Julian and Elinor found out that their charming, good-looking waiter was not only a graduate of that same religion department but bound for seminary, they were determined to make fast friends with me. 

On many weekend afternoons or evenings at the end of my shift, he invited me up to their apartment for conversation and sherry, always sherry, which, up to that point in my life, I had only cooked with. 

“I would’ve thought a Methodist of your advanced age would be a tee-totaler,” I said, when he offered me a glass for the first time. 

“My father was, but I’m free in Christ,” he answered in a prairie accent and then laughed and tapped his cane on the floor. 

We talked about UVA and the Methodist Church and William Faulkner. 

We talked about upbringings and the connections we both had to the plains states. 

We talked about the students he had taught who soon would be my teachers. We talked about his wife and the woman I planned to make mine. 

We sat on his patio one afternoon, watching the hummingbirds, when I told him how I planned to propose to Ali. 

“You sound more troubled by it than enthusiastic,” he said, “Usually it takes a few years of marriage before you sound that way about marriage.” 

And then he laughed, tapped his cane on the cement, and poured himself another draw of sherry. 

“No, it’s not that I’m not excited,” I said, “It’s something else I’ve been struggling with.”

“You sound like a man who needs more sherry,” he said, pulling out the cork and pouring. 

He stared at the hummingbirds, silent in the sun and stubbornly sipping his sherry, waiting for me to unload my burden. 

So I confessed to him how I had not yet proposed but I had already decided not to invite my father to the wedding. 

And then I shared with him the why— why I did not want to invite him, the alcoholism and infidelities, the abandonment, and all the broken promises. 

“It sounds like you’ve set your mind on it,” Dr. Hartt said when I finished, “so what troubles you?” 

“I might have my reasons,” I said, “and they might be very good reasons— I think they are— but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m supposed to honor my father and mother, aren’t I? 

As much as I think it’s a good decision, I can’t shake feeling guilty about all the anger and un-forgiveness I still carry around with me like sacks of groceries in damp, rain-soaked paper bags.”

He took a few sips of his sherry and nodded his head, and then, without looking at me, he told me a story. 

“My father,” he said, “as you know, was a prairie pastor. Well, he had a friend, a colleague I suppose you could say, a Norwegian Lutheran pastor named Johan Aasgaard. 

“He eventually went on to become president of Luther Seminary in Minnesota. Anyways, one time, at some conference or another, Dr. Aasgaard told my father about a woman who was in his congregation.”

Dr Hartt looked up at the clouds, thinking, trying to recall. 

“You know, I’m not sure now what provoked him to tell my father this story, but I know my father, who was sort of a fundamentalist, loved to argue with non-pietists about the limits of grace.”

And Dr. Hartt paused his story to laugh at the memory of his father and take sip from his short, little glass. 

“Dr. Aasgaard had performed this woman’s wedding just a few months earlier. She came to see Dr. Aasgaard one afternoon not only after the wedding. 

“Dr. Aasgaard I have to talk with you,” she said, shaking and trembling and crying, “I must talk to you now.”

“So he knew she’d come to confess something to him.”

“And he said to her, “There’s a liturgy in the hymnal for someone in your situation.” 

“He opened the book up to Luther’s service of confession and absolution from the Small Catechism, and he invited to kneel there in his office just as he knelt in front of her. 

“They began working their way through the ritual, and she confessed to her preacher.”

“She told him that before she had been married or even met her husband, she’d had a relationship with a doctor. She’d become pregnant by the doctor, and the doctor, who wanted nothing to do with a child, pressured her and pressured her and pressured her into having an abortion.” 

Dr. Hartt stopped and looked at me to make sure I understood. “Bear in mind, this was in the 1920’s.” 

“She relented under his pressure and the doctor arranged for a colleague to do it and she had the abortion.”

“That was the end of the relationship with the doctor,” she confessed to Dr. Aasgaard, crying. 

And Dr Hartt continued the story:

“When her husband started courting her, she felt like she should tell him what she had done, but she couldn’t bring herself to tell him.” 

“And when the relationship became serious, she felt like she should tell him what she had done, but she couldn’t bring herself to tell him.”

“And when he proposed to her, she felt like she should tell him what she had done, but still she couldn’t tell him.”

“And when they got married, every day she felt like she should tell him what she had done, but she could never bear to do it.”

“Now,” she said to her preacher, “every time he touches me all I can think about is what I’ve done and how I’ve betrayed him. 

“And whenever he talks to me, all I can think about is what I’m keeping myself from telling him.” 

“When she finished confessing her story,” Dr. Hartt told me, “this pastor stood up and placed his hand on her forehead and said to her, “In the name of Jesus Christ and by his authority alone, I declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.””

“She wept for a long while,” he told my father,” Dr. Hartt said, “and then she stood up, wiped her eyes dry and straightened herself up and said, “Well now, I guess I better go home now and tell my husband this story.””

“And Dr. Aasgaard looked her straight in the eyes and said, “What story?””

———————-

“Christ set us free from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us.”

———————-

Martin Luther says that Jesus the Curse is our most tender comfort. In his Commentary on Galatians, Luther paints a picture of it. 

He shows what Paul says:  

“Our most merciful Father, seeing that we were oppressed by the curse of the Law and held under its power so that we could never have freed ourselves in our own strength, sent his only Son into the world. 

And the Father said to Him, “Become that Peter, the denier. Become that Paul, the persecutor, blasphemer, and cruel executioner. Become that David, adulterer and murderer. Become that sinner, Adam, who ate the fruit in the garden. Become the thieves, who hung from the cross. 

For a moment, Son, become the person who has committed the sins of every human being. Be sure you pay and satisfy the penalty of them all.”

Then the Law appears and says to Jesus, “I find that you are a guilty sinner and such a great sinner that you have taken on your body the sins of every creature. Thus, I see no sins on anyone but you. Thus, you must die on the tree!” 

Then the Law lunges against Christ and kills him. But in such a way, the entire world is purified and cleansed of all sin. 

Now, since sin is abolished by this one man, God only sees throughout the whole world, but especially in those who believe, not only cleansing but righteousness. 

And if there remains some residue of sin, due to Christ’s glory that outshines the sun, God is unable to see it.” 

———————-

“I guess I better go home now and tell my husband this story.”

“What story?”

“What story?!” Dr. Hartt repeated it, laughing— reveling really— and tapped his cane as applause. 

I must’ve looked confused because Dr. Hartt turned to me and suddenly became a teacher again. 

“Once you’ve given the story over to Christ,” Jason, “there is no story any longer.”

“This is what Christ Jesus does. He takes our narrative up into his narrative. And when we entrust our narrative to him— the abortion, the infidelity, the unbelief, the selfishness and resentment, the prejudice, the words spoken in anger— he absorbs our narrative into his narrative so that he can hand it back to us and say, “Your sins are forgiven.”

“And pay attention, Jason, in case they don’t teach you this in seminary: it’s the calling of preachers, lay and ordained alike, to preside at that wonderful exchange.” 

“What story!?” Dr. Hartt laughed again and raised a glass to a delightful scoundrel in the sky. 

“That woman,” Dr. Hartt said, “went home rejoicing, my father said, and had a long and happy life because she was no longer carrying her burden around with her— because Christ Jesus was carrying it.”

“If all the sins of the whole world are found in Jesus Christ, Jason, then they are no longer found in the world.” 

“If Christ is guilty of all the sins of the world, then we are all totally and entirely free from all our sins.” 

And then he took a sip of sherry and hummed a few notes of a song that was impossible not recognize. 

It was Joy to World. 

“As far as the curse is found.”

I nodded and thought over everything he’d said. 

“Did you share that story to tell me I’m forgiven for not honoring my father? Forgiven for my sin?” 

“Oh no,” Dr. Hartt laughed, “I mean, you are, of course, but my father’s friend told that story to him and my father told that story to me and now I’ve told this story to my friend, in order to remind him that his Father is forgiven all of his sins.” 

I must’ve blanched. 

“You look like a man who needs a drink,” Dr. Hartt said, pouring me another sherry. 

“Maybe several more,” I mumbled. 

“That’s fine. That’s fine,” Dr. Hartt chuckled, “God’s party doesn’t really get going until the sinners show up— isn’t that right!?” 

———————-

Hear the good news:

Whatever your story— 

The hurt you can’t let go of

The gossip and backbiting and double-talk

The forgiveness you withheld until it was too late

The doubts that linger

The disappointments you still resent

The relationship you let fester

The lies you tell to shroud your addiction

The truth you’re too cowardly to come out with

Whatever your story— 

The handout you withheld

The frustration that others aren’t as faithful as you

The gift you gave with strings attached

The if-bombs you throw down as conditions of your love

The prodigal you won’t welcome home

The prejudice

The self-righteousness and sanctimony that feels good for a second— especially when it’s about politics— but then it sticks on you like a bad smell on your shoe

The secret you keep hidden in the dark corner closet of your heart

Whatever your story— 

What story?

Christ Jesus has set you free from that story by becoming that story for you.

In the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.

11 But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.

12 And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them.

13 Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree:

14 That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

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