Paul’s Commandments

Last week, in dealing with Paul’s call to “not be conformed” to the ways of this world, I wrote a post that invited us to think less about the “thou shalt nots” and more about the “thou shalts.” That post received some good traction on Facebook because it resonated with people’s unfortunate experiences with the modern day Church of Paul.  In doing some reading on the history of the Church of England last night, I learned that this really isn’t all that new.  In describing the rising tide of Puritanism during the Elizabethan Era (1558-1603), Moorman noted that the draw to the Puritan way of thinking was natural after the rapid changes of the first half of the 16th century.

There is no doubt that, to a large number of people the Puritan way of life held out great attractions.  In a period of considerable confusion, Calvinism provided a clear-cut and authoritative system both of thought and of governance which gave a sense of security.  To many people the attitude of the government seemed deplorably vague and ambiguous.  It seemed to be ‘halting between two opinions,’ unable which to accept and what policy to follow.  After a generation of rapid changes, people felt lost and insecure. (A History of the Church in England, 3rd ed.)

I tend to think that this was the cause of the mega-church movement in the latter part of the 20th century as well.  Following the 2nd World War, the Baby Boom, Vietnam, and the Civil Rights movement, Americans were in need of some stability and so they sought out churches that were Reformed and Calvinist, eager to know precisely what the rules were.  This lead, in my opinion, to the rise of Pauliantiy as the national religion of the United States.  Rather than focusing on the Red Letters in their pew Bibles, members of these churches focused on the morality codes that Paul had tried to impose on the fledgling churches in Asia Minor.  They refused to let women preach and got strict about human sexuality.



As I’ve grown out of that tradition, I’ve been grumpy about Paul for the last 10 years or so, forgetting that it really wasn’t Paul I was mad at, but a particular interpretation of Paul.  In fact, Paul wasn’t just about “thou shalt nots.”  This week’s lesson from Romans 12 is full of “thou shalt” moral teaching that sounds an awful lot like what Jesus was concerned about during his time on earth: Love one another, show honor, serve the Lord, rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, contribute to the needs of others, show hospitality, bless those who persecute you, associate with the lowly, live peaceably with all, and overcome evil with good.

This is, of course, not any easy religion to practice.  Loving and serving and caring and blessing is a whole lot harder than judging and cursing and bitching and moaning.  We can barely pull it off for ourselves, let alone those we love, and “God forbid” our enemies.  But alas, the claim of Christ on our lives is a call to loving service for the whole world, even a rapidly changing world that we would like, more than anything, to pull under control.  So to make amends for my decade long discomfort with Paul, I’m taking on a new mantra for life and taking it directly from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

When the Bible doesn’t say what the Bible says

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
Matthew 16:22

Peter’s rebuke of Jesus’ first [pseudo] Passion Prediction is fairly well known.  Jesus, having just been confessed as Messiah by Peter, begins to tell his disciples just what that means.  “I’ll have to suffer and die, but on the third day rise again.”  It seems obvious that the guy who just got the “keys to the kingdom” wouldn’t want that kingdom to come to an abrupt end while its founder hung on a cross, so Peter pulls Jesus aside and rebukes Jesus, saying, “God forbid it, Lord!”

“God forbid it, Lord!” is a clever turn of phrase, but it is also rife with trouble.  It raises questions of hierarchy in the Trinity: can God, the Father, I assume, overrule the Son?  Can God force the Son to do something he really doesn’t want to do?  It also raises questions about the whole confession bit we just heard from Peter.  If Jesus is the “Son of the Living God” and Lord, then what role does his own will have to play in the Messianic work he has come to do?  Finally, it makes me wonder just who Peter thinks he is to rebuke “the Son of the Living God” by invoking the God card?

“God forbid it, Lord!” is a clever and challenging turn of phrase that Peter may not have ever really said.  Newer translations seem to pick up the Greek “hilios soi” as an idiomatic expression meaning “God forbid it,” while older versions play of the meaning of the adjective hilios and say something very different:

  • NRSV – And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
  • KJV – Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee.
  • Young’s Literal – And having taken him aside, Peter began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Be kind to thyself, sir; this shall not be to thee;’

The vast majority of the Bible didn’t first exist in a written form.  The stories of the Old Testament as well as the life and ministry of Jesus were carried in the hearts and minds of gifted story tellers, teachers, and ultimately the faithful who heard them told again and again.  They were told in Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, and Greek.  They were the stories of the people, told in their language and their idioms. Two thousand plus years later, we have the difficult challenge of trying to understand the language and culture of a people so far removed from us as to be nearly unimaginable.  Oh, and if Hebrew or Greek are like the paintings of Michelangelo, English is the finger-painted mess of a two year old.

A visual expression of English’s ability to capture the nuances of ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek.

Did Peter really say to Jesus “God forbid it”?  Maybe he did, but I don’t think so.  I think Peter forbade Jesus’ idea of Messiahship and he wanted Jesus to know that in no uncertain terms.  Sometimes the Bible doesn’t say what we think it says, and I find that to be a real gift.  Instead of being a dead book, etched in stone, the Bible is living and active.  It had meaning for the first souls who told the stories of the faith and it still has meaning for us 2,000 years later.  The truth of God’s steadfast love for us doesn’t change, but it’d be hard to argue that the Bible’s call for our response to that love hasn’t been constantly in flux.  That’s part of the life of faith: growing deeper into our understanding of God’s pull on our lives.  That’s why, after 8 years, I still blog about the Bible four days a week.  I am an ever changing person.  It is an ever changing book.

Who is Jesus?

Last week, in a real change of pace for this blog, I spent the whole week dealing with the lesson from Romans 12.  Conveniently, the Gospel lessons for last week and this week actually work better together, so this week I’ll get to deal with them both all at once here.

To review, last week’s Gospel lesson was from Matthew 16:13-20.  There we were in the third week of trying to answer the question “Who is Jesus?”  On Proper 14, we heard the story of Jesus walking on water in which Peter twice calls Jesus “Lord.”  The first time it is with some level of suspicion, “If it is you, Lord…” while the second time it comes in the voice of sheer terror, “Lord, save me!”  We also are told that once Jesus safely the boat, the disciples worshiped Jesus calling him “the Son of God.”  For Matthew, who is careful to not upset the Jewish Christians in his Church, who always talks of the “Kingdom of Heaven” rather than the “Kingdom of God” this title is very important.  Jesus isn’t just any old Messiah-type person, and there were more than a few of them running around, but Jesus is the Son of God.  

On Proper 15, the Canaanite Woman calls out to Jesus with still another title.  Yes, he is “Lord,” but for this Gentile woman, he is also the “Son of David.”  Here too we see Jesus being given a Messianic title, but this time it about the fulfillment of prophecy.  As the Messiah, Jesus will restore the throne of David and God’s steadfast love will remain upon it forever (1 Chronicles 17:13).

Proper 16 begins the two-part story of Peter’s Confession, Jesus’ Passion Prediction, and Peter’s Rebuke.  Here we see Jesus called not just Lord, but “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”  While the Canaanite woman is praised for her faith, as an outsider, she didn’t quite have the big picture of who Jesus is.  Peter, speaking on behalf of the disciples who have followed Jesus, more or less faithfully, for roughly two years, gets it perfectly right.  Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of God, the Son of David, the Son of Man, who has come to bring salvation to the whole world.

Which brings us to Proper 17, and our Gospel lesson for this Sunday, in which Jesus goes on to elaborate on just what it means that he is the Messiah.  Being the Messiah means upsetting the status quo.  It means being betrayed and arrested.  It means enduring great suffering at the hands of the religious leaders.  It means being killed by the Gentile occupiers.  It means a bunch of stuff that Peter and the gang don’t want it to mean, but it also means Resurrection.

Jesus is the Messiah and the Messiah has power even over death.  That’s who Jesus is, hard as it may be to hear and understand for Peter and, quite frankly, for us.  As the story unfolds, we’ll learn more about what it means that Jesus is the Messiah, but for this week, we’ll have to sit with the confused disciples and try to understand how the Messiah can be killed and still be God.

168 Hours of Worship – A Sermon

You can listen to the audio on the Saint Paul’s website, or read on.

        The past couple of weeks here at Saint Paul’s have sounded like a non-denominational staff meeting as we’ve talked about praise and worship, praise and worship, praise and worship.  You might recall a couple of weeks ago, with the story of Jesus walking on the water, how what struck me wasn’t that Jesus or Peter was able to defy gravity, but that it was the first time in Matthew’s Gospel that the disciples worshipped Jesus and called him “the Son of God.”  Last week, Keith invited us to look at the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman through a new lens.  Focusing less on the interaction between the two, Keith probed into the meaning behind her words, “Lord, Son of David!”  Seeing them not as a prayer of supplication, he wondered instead if they could be words of praise to Jesus the Christ.  They were both good sermons, if I do say so myself, coming at fairly well known gospel stories from a different angle.  If you haven’t heard them yet, you really should check them out on the website under the “Reaching Up” tab.

        Where we both fell short, however, was that we didn’t really take the time to talk about what it means for us, as 21st century American Christians to do the work of praise and worship.  As I alluded to in my opening sentence, I think these words have been co-opted over the past 20 or so years to mean one particular thing: a rock band on a big stage leading songs with questionable theology that repeat their chorus no less than nine thousand times or for forty-five minutes, whichever comes first.  As you might have guessed, I’m not a fan of that particular understanding of “praise and worship,” and so, I am grateful for this week’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans as it opens for us a deeper and richer understanding of praise and worship.

        Even though we’ve been hearing excerpts from it all summer long, we haven’t talked much about the Epistle to the Romans.  This really is a shame because Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome is one of the highlights of the New Testament.  My favorite Biblical scholar, N.T. Wright says that Romans is

… neither a systematic theology nor a summary of Paul’s lifework, but it is by common consent his masterpiece. It dwarfs most of his other writings, an Alpine peak towering over hills and villages… Not all climbers have taken the same route up its sheer sides, and there is frequent disagreement on the best approach. What nobody doubts is that we are here dealing with a work of massive substance, presenting a formidable intellectual challenge while offering a breathtaking theological and spiritual vision.[1]

This morning, we find ourselves at the turning point in Romans.  Paul has spent eleven chapters dealing with the theological issues that are at play in the Roman Church.  Just ask our lectors about the Mobius strip like prose that Paul has used, folding word upon word, phrase upon phrase, to try to lay out a theology of the grace of God that fits the worldviews of two very different types of Christians.  The first Christians in Rome, like everywhere else, were Jewish converts.  They had been raised with the Torah, followed the sacrificial rules of the Temple, and knew their Hebrew Scriptures inside and out.  As time went on, others became interested in this new religion, and so Gentiles, non-Jews, started joining the ranks.  These Christians had been brought up in the pagan cult of Rome, worshipping a pantheon of gods.

        The Jewish Christians were highly incarnational people.  The Torah is full of rules that deal with real life: how to plant and harvest; what to eat and how to do the dishes; what to wear and with whom to do business; and so on.  Their religious system was designed, in part, to keep God’s chosen people alive in a world where life was extremely fragile.  There were constant threats against one’s body in the first century: infant mortality was near 25% and roughly 50% of children died before age ten.[2]  For the Jewish people, an oppressed minority for almost their entire history, life was so full of death that their religious system necessarily worked to protect them as best it could.  It makes sense, then, that these Jewish Christians focused on Jesus’ humanity as a living, breathing, first century Jew.

        The Roman Christians, on the other hand, had been raised on Plato, and saw the body as nothing more than “an embarrassing encumbrance.”[3]  They thought of the body as the tomb of the soul, which waited to finally escape the filthiness of this world for the glory of the afterlife.  Their focus would have been Jesus’ divinity and the call to give their hearts over to God rather than to focus on the nitty-gritty of Jesus’ life and ministry.  After eleven chapters of working to reconcile these two disparate worldviews, Paul turns his attention to what he sees as the only proper response to God’s grace.

        “Therefore, in light of all that I’ve said and in view of the mercy of God, I urge you brothers and sisters to present your bodies, fragile and corrupted as they might be, to God as a living, breathing sacrifice, which is your only reasonable act of worship.”  He then goes on to describe just what that living sacrifice of worship looks like: being transformed by the will of God; living in humility, serving as members of the body, and exercising the gifts of the Spirit for the building of the Kingdom of God.  You’ll note that there is nothing in there about music on Sunday morning.  The worship, to which Paul calls the Church in Rome and us, is about living from Sunday afternoon to Saturday night as disciples of Jesus Christ.  True worship is about being here on Sunday only insofar as it equips and empowers us to go forth from this place to “love and serve the Lord.”

        From there, our worship becomes about building the Kingdom of God. We worship God when our lives align with his will. We worship God when we treat others with the dignity and respect we all deserve. We worship God when we put aside our own selfish desires to seek after the greater good. We worship God when we use the gifts he has given us to build up the body.  Those who are called to be prophets worship God by calling people to abundance of life with conviction.  Those who are called to ministries of service worship God by reaching out in care and love to those in need in their communities and in the world.  Those who are called to be teachers worship God by being students of the faith who are then able to help others grow in their knowledge and love of the Lord.  Those we are called to exhortation worship God by encouraging others in their life and faith.  Those who are called to be givers worship God by giving of themselves and their resources sacrificially.  Those who are called to be leaders worship God by leading in the Church and in the world with grace and humility.  Those who are called to be merciful worship God through cheerful compassion.

        We spend an hour each week worshipping God in song, scripture reading, prayer, and communion here on Sunday morning, but more important is the 167 hours a week we spend worshipping God by exercising our gifts, showing forth God’s power among all peoples, and building his Kingdom here on earth.  That is our living sacrifice, our reasonable response to God’s grace. That is a truly spiritual act of worship.  Amen.


[1] Leander E. Keck and others, eds., The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002) 395


[3] John Stott, “The Message of Romans” The Bible Speaks Today p. 322

The Peskiness of Paul’s Body Metaphor

Alyce McKenzie, in her weekly post at Edgy Exegesis, points out that Paul must have chosen the image of the Church as a body very intentionally.  Knowing what I know about Paul based on his corpus of letters, I think he chose the body image because it would be “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1.23).  Having spent 11 chapters dealing with the internal struggles of the Church in Rome, specifically spending extra time to help smooth the riff between the Jewish Christians on the one hand and Gentile Christians on the other, Paul calls them both to unity through the image of the body.

Judaism was, and is, a very incarnational religious tradition.  The Torah is full of rules that deal with real life: how to plant and harvest; what to eat; how to wash the dishes; what to wear; and so on.  This was necessary in those days because of the fragility of life.  There were constant threats against one’s body in first century Palestine.  Pregnancy and childbirth were the cause of many a death, as were food borne illnesses, and a myriad of other diseases we take for granted these days.  Life was so full of death, that the Jewish system of Torah was at least partially built to keep people alive.

The Romans, on the other hand, were very much anti-body.  They were so focused on the spiritual that they saw the body as “an embarrassing encumbrance” (Stott, “Romans” BST, 322).  Their goal was to find their way out of their filthy bodies and into the incorruptible spiritual realm.

And so, when Paul uses the body image to explain the make up of the Church, he forces both sides to think hard about their understandings of the flesh.  Isn’t the body simply too fragile to be a good metaphor?  Isn’t it just too earthy?  No, says Alyce McKenzie, it is the perfect image.  “It’s better than family or team.  You can take a break from being a member of a team.  You can go on vacation without your family.  But you can’t take a break from the parts of your body.”  To further that understanding of unity, I would add that it is precisely because the body can feel pain, because bones can break and skin can be gashed and bruises can form, because scars develop to remind us of past hurts, that the image of the body is the ideal image for the united Church.  It isn’t perfect.  It doesn’t always work like it should.  Sometimes parts (white blood cells) attack other parts accidentally, but we can’t run away from each other.

That’s the peskiness of the body metaphor for modern Christians who are, rather unfortunately, used to tens of thousands of different flavors of church.  A new sign on the church down the street this week tells me that we have two “Church of Christ” congregations within a block of each other.  No matter how many walls we build, the truth of the matter is that we are still united, members of the same body, called to show forth the power of God to all people.

This might be the best religious image ever.


It is an ancient tradition to lift up the Seven-fold Gifts of the Holy Spirit.  In fact, we claim those seven gifts at every ordination through the rubric that requires either Veni Creator Spiritus or Veni Sancte Spiritus be sung prior to the Consecration.  Both ancient hymns make reference to the Seven-fold Gifts which come not from the usual gifts lists cited from Romans, 1 Corinthians, or Ephesians, but instead from the Prophet Isaiah.  In a prophecy about the savior who will grow the Peacable Kingdom from the root of the Tree of Jesse, Isaiah lists the gifts the Anointed One will possess: “The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of

  1. wisdom and
  2. understanding, the spirit of
  3. counsel
  4. and might, the spirit of
  5. knowledge
  6. and the fear of the LORD.
  7. He will delight in obeying the LORD.”

It took some digging to figure out how repeating the “Fear of the LORD” made for two separate gifts, but thanks to the theological resource to end all theological resources, Wikipedia, I figured out that the list comes form the Latin Vulgate, which is a notoriously bad translation.  In the Latin, number six reads not “fear of the Lord” as it does in Hebrew for both 6 and 7, but “pietatis,” a helpful word for a Church trying to overcome an empire built on a sacrificial system of moral corruption. This gives us a list of seven unique gifts: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, piety, and fear of the LORD.

Which is a really long way of introducing the list that shows up in Sunday’s lesson from Romans.  Paul, continuing to call upon the Church in Rome to discipleship and unity, reminds them that the only person who possessed all of the Gifts of the Spirit is the head to which the Body is united, Jesus the Christ.  Without mentioning the Isaiah list, he certainly brings to mind, at least for the Jewish Christians in the Roman Church, the promise of giftedness that comes with Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom.  Paul goes on to list some, not all, of the gifts that are needed in the Church, gifts that will ensure the health of the whole body: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion.

None of us possesses all of the gifts of the Spirit, those listed here or the expanded lists elsewhere in Paul’s letters.  None of us has none of them.  But the Spirit, according that good and perfect will of God, divvies them out by grace, through baptism, so that each member of the Church might have a job to do that builds up the Kingdom and strengthens the body.  It is through the exercise of those gifts that we are able to join with God in the re-creation of earth, in fulfilling his dream, in creating the Kingdom of God.  

Do you know your gifts?  Do you have a means to exercise them?  If not, ask your local clergy person for advice, surely they can help you stretch your spiritual muscle.

Why the Church – An Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Challenge

This week, the Acts 8 BLOGFORCE begins a three-part challenge, asking the question “Why the church?”  It begins with a 30,000 foot view, then we’ll move closer to earth as ask “Why Anglicanism?” and finally “Why The Episcopal Church?”  If you’d like to join in the fun, you can find out more at the Acts 8 Website

Last week, I wrote a blog post reflecting on the RCL Track 2 lesson for Proper 15A, Isaiah 56:1, 6-8.  I focused my attention on one line from the prophet and used it as the title, “A House of Prayer for All People.”  In it, I pondered, in an America where nearly 1 in 5 professes no formal religious tradition, what role does the Church have in meeting the spiritual needs of the rising Nones?  “How is it then, in the growing post-religious society (at least in the West), are we called to meet the needs of those who are seeking a relationship with God, or as Isaiah puts it those “who join themselves to the LORD” outside of the traditional structures of laws, prophets, holy writ, and ritual?”

A friend and colleague responded via Facebook asking, “Can one truly be spiritual without a religious tradition? I’m not sure…” Which lead to a fairly healthy conversation about how the Church, with all her baggage, differs from tradition, which all its baggage, and community, which seems to be the buzzword of the Millennial Generation.

All of that, to say this.  My answer to “Why the Church?” is quite simply, because I think it is impossible to live the life of faith on our own. Saving the famous St. Augustine quote for someone more bold than myself, I’ll say this, the Church is a “wonderful and sacred mystery” all right, but I love her. The Kingdom of God is, by its very nature, communal.  Formed out of the overflowing love of the Trinity which existed before Creation, we are made to live in community with one our communal God and with one another.  For all her faults and foibles, the Church catholic is the best model for the community of faith that we have.  Ideally,

  • She is a built in support structure for those moments when we feel that even God has abandoned us.  
  • She gives voice to our prayers when all we are capable of is a groan.  
  • She rejoices when we rejoice.  
  • She models for the world the dream of God for the Kingdom.
  • She calls us each to deeper faith and abundant life.

The Church exists because we need her to.  More precisely, if more egocentrically, the Church exists because I need her to.  The reality is that each of us, as disciples of Jesus, needs the Church to make the life of faith the full expression, the abundant life, it is meant to be.


On Conforming to this World

It is rare that I don’t focus this blog and my sermons on the Gospel text appointed for a Sunday, but for some reason, this week, I’m feeling a strong connection to the Romans 12 lesson.  Perhaps it is because, as I said yesterday, it contains one of the few verses of scripture that I actually memorized, chapter and verse, back in my youth.  More likely, however, is that I’m drawn to Romans 12 because it is a deep well from which to draw.  The language is rich and evocative.  The imagery is profound and the basis of much ecclesiology.  And to top it off, in very un-Pauline fashion, the message is clear.

After 11 chapters of dense theology and Mobius strip like prose, Paul begins chapter 12 with clear thesis statement,  “Therefore, I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to take on the only reasonable response to what I’ve laid before you: present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable; do not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing your minds in order to discern God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will.”

The traditional reading of this passage is to see it as a call to sanctification or purity of life.  It is the Siren Call of modern evangelicalism, “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world.  Don’t do all the stuff that heathens do.  Don’t drink, smoke, dance, have sex outside of marriage, be gay, or vote Democrat.”  Given Paul’s context, this isn’t actually a bad reading, though maybe the list of don’ts assumes some things about both heathens and Christians.  Writing to cosmopolitan Christians, both Gentile and Jew, Paul had his hands full on what it looked like to follow Jesus in first century Rome.  Don’t have sex with temple prostitutes, maybe don’t eat meat sacrificed to Roman gods and goddesses, and don’t feel the need to get circumcised if you aren’t already are all on his mind, but so are a lot of “do’s”.

Do believe that Jesus was the Messiah.  Do follow in his footsteps.  Do take care of the poor, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, and the oppressed.  Do seek justice for those who are outcast.  Do share the Good News with those who haven’t heard.  Do, he’ll go on to say, utilize the gifts that God has given you to build up the Kingdom.

Sure, when faith is young, a list of things we once did without thinking that we should now maybe think about not doing, is probably helpful.  But as faith grows, as we mature, as our focus turns away from ourselves and toward God and his Kingdom, the tenor of the conversation should change, maybe even be transformed, from a list of don’ts to a vision for how to do this thing called discipleship.

A Living Sacrifice

When I was in high school, I became pretty heavily involved in Young Life, a parachurch youth ministry.  Things weren’t really happening at the Episcopal Church of my upbringing (a well rehearsed trope, to be sure), so I chose instead to hang out with the hundred or so kids who showed up on Wednesday nights for Club.  A smaller number of us, maybe 12-15, would take part in a Friday morning Bible study, which also had a name, but I can’t remember it all these years later.  A part of the mission of that smaller group was to be leaders in our school, and to be the model for Christian discipleship among our peers.  One of the key pieces of that discipleship was Bible memorization.

I suck at Bible memorization.

Dutifully, however, I went down to our local Bible book store and bought this exact set of Bible memorization flash cards, red plastic pouch and everything.

I should have known, given my inability to memorize the multiplication tables and my spelling lists, that Bible flash cards weren’t going to do any good, but I bought them, and then proceeded to feel guilty when I failed to memorize a verse a week.  One of the few that I did manage to set deep in the recesses of my mind was the opening two verses of Romans 12 that are appointed in Sunday’s lectionary.  Of course, I didn’t yet know of the gloriousness that is the NRSV, so my version of choice was the NIV.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Having successfully memorized it, and not yet knowing was exegesis was, I really had no idea what Paul was calling for in this admonition.  A living sacrifice?  Be transformed by the renewing of your mind?  God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will?  It sounds like the stuff of discipleship, to be sure, but like memorizing Bible verses, it can just be fluff-n-stuff, unless there is some real intention, some real meat behind it.  To be a living sacrifice for God doesn’t just mean memorizing Bible verses, but getting down and dirty in bringing the Kingdom to earth.  The fact of the matter is that most of us, myself very much included, would like to follow Jesus in the easiest way possible.  We don’t necessarily like to take risks, but sometimes God calls us to become living sacrifices for the greater good.  Standing up for justice, reaching out in care and love, doing the right thing when you know that the wider culture will punish you for it: these are the living sacrifices that disciples make everyday, whether they’ve memorized Romans 12:1-2 or not.

Suicide, Sin, and Modern Tribalism

It has been a couple of years now since a man pulled his car diagonally across the busiest intersection in south Baldwin County at AL-59 and US-98, got out, took a seat on top of the trunk, and, in broad day light, shot himself in the head.  Traffic was backed up for hours as locals tried to figure out what had happened to shut down the road.  Rumors swirled, but all we heard was that an incident had occurred which required the intersection to be closed for several hours.  Ultimately, the final say on the matter was “The media does not report on suicides.”  This is still, by and large, the case.  The media does not report on suicides, unless it is the death of a major figure in politics or entertainment.

There was a time, a very long time, in the not too distant past, in which the Church (I use a capital “C” very intentionally here) condemned suicide as an unpardonable sin.  The theology, such as it was, behind it stated that because suicide is a blatant violation of the Sixth Commandment (Thou shalt not kill) and is therefore a sin and because the sinner cannot ask for forgiveness after the sin was committed, then one who commits suicide died as an unrepentant sinner and was therefore condemned to hell for eternity.  Let’s be clear about something, this is a terrible and damaging theology.  Nevertheless, it was the prevailing understanding of suicide in the the Church for about 1,960 years (+/-).

The questions surrounding how we handle suicide as a culture have come under the bright light of the news media in the past few days as we’ve collectively mourned the loss of comedic legend, Robin Williams.  From the international back lash surround Shepherd Smith’s suggestion that Williams was a “coward” to a local op ed piece on the unpardonable sin, Williams death has opened up a long overdue conversation about depression, addiction, and suicide.  Thankfully, the Church has walked alongside advancements in psychology and physiology over the past half century, and, at least on this matter, we don’t sound like barbaric cave men spouting ignorance in the name of Jesus.  We can now say that depression can kill just like cancer can, and respond with compassion and grace rather than condemnation and law.

What I’ve found most interesting over the last 48 hours however, is how Social Media has created something of a neo-tribalism that gets exacerbated in the aftermath of large scale life events.  I think it has been largely unintentional, but watching as groups have worked hard to address the grave issues behind Williams’ death, celebrate his life, and drive traffic to their websites has been intriguing for me.  Whether it is the TODAY Show sharing clips of all of his visits to their set or the local Top-40 station inviting me to check out something they’ve shared on their Facebook Page or the scores of Episcopalians sharing Robin Williams’ Top 10 Reasons to be an Episcopalian

or the San Francisco Giants holding a moment of silence for one of their greatest fans, there has been a rush to have Robin Williams included among at least one of almost every tribal grouping you can imagine: church, sports team, local radio stations, even morning “news” shows.  Heck, even this blog post can be looked as with suspicion.  Am I writing this with entirely pure intentions?  Probably not.

What is really interesting isn’t searching out the motivations behind all of the internet traffic that Robin Williams’ death has caused, but how we have so drastically changed the way suicide is viewed, and rightfully so.  60, 100, 1,000 years ago, Williams’ name would have been shunned from society.  There would have been a rush by groups he was associated with to remove themselves from the shadow that his suicide would have cast on the culture.  Today, as we know more about depression, as more of us have experienced it, as we’ve become more open to removing the stigma of mental illness, we are able to actually learn something from what is really a national tragedy.  That a man who brought so much joy was paralyzed by such deep pain boggles the mind, but it helps to remind us that depression doesn’t look like what we think it should, and to be on guard, watching for signs of depression and suicidal thoughts.  People still want Robin Williams to be included among their tribe.  They want all of him: manic stand-up comedian, gifted actor, hilarious talk show guest, and yes, even depressed and cash strapped mega-star.  We want him to be included among us because now, more than ever, we’re able to say, “none of us is perfect, we’ve all got demons, we all struggle from time to time, and we’re all in this together.”  I rejoice that we’ve come so far.  Anything to find some good in the midst of such a sad story.

And please, if you find yourself having thoughts of suicide, know that there is help available and things really can be better.  Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).