I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we have been trucking along through Matthew for the summer, because it’s year A in the lectionary. If you don’t catch a moment to read the Bible at any other moment, at least you will get to hear the Lord of Heaven and Earth say something exciting when you hobble into church this morning.
This week, Jesus announces to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem where he will die on the cross for their sins. Peter, ever ready to instruct others, finds the plan so abhorrent that he rebukes Him who, mere verses before, he, Peter, had correctly identified as the Christ, the Son of the Living God. I’m sure we’re meant to see the irony, the foolishness, nay even the humor in Peter’s confusion. And who would not be confused? For why would God come in the flesh and then do something so horrifying as to go, on purpose, to die, when he could do anything else, like live, and defeat all the enemies and perils that beset us on every side? It is excessively confusing.
This person, for example, is having a terribly difficult time sorting it out. That he is trying to make sense of it all, for himself, in the “sermon,” makes the vignette lamentable. Give it a listen, though I have parts of it transcribed on the other side from this piece:
So, as you can see, it is a young person with a microphone and a lot of confused theological feelings. Some of the things he says are sort of true—truth adjacent if you will. And others are eye-poppingingly unconsidered. But just so that we may thoughtfully consider what he might be trying to say, here’s how it starts out:
I had a pastor say some things that hurt me really bad. Hurt me so bad, messed me up emotionally, mentally, really mess me up. Nothing physical, nothing like that. A pastor I really respected said some words and hurt me so bad. And one time I was laying on the floor, actually it was in this room, I’m laying on the floor and in a vision, in an encounter with God in a vision, Jesus picks me up and holds me so close that I can’t see anything. And he holds me so close, and Jesus starts to weep. And he says, “Please forgive me. Please forgive me.” I said ‘what are you talking about, please forgive you?’ He said, “when that pastor hurt you, it’s as if I hurt you, because he’s a member of my body. Please forgive me.”
I know you’re not going to believe this, but the epistle appointed for today is literally about the Body. It’s the part in Romans where Paul so tantalizingly sketches out that striking image and sets the theological and practical spirit in which it should be taken, and then passes on to other matters.
The “preacher,” meanwhile, is trying his level best not to commit heresy, but he just can’t quite manage it:
…Any pain I hold on to from a believer, any unforgiveness I hold on to from another believer, Jesus actually takes it, the bl- think about the cross; what Jesus did. He did not sin, but he paid for ours. He did not sin but he let us kill him for our sin. He took the blame for us. He took our blame and let us punish him for our stuff.
So why would he not look at you and say, ‘that pain you’re holding on to, that hurt you’re holding on to, that unforgiveness you’re holding on to, look; holding it against them is like you’re holding it against me because they’re a member of my body’? And I wept when I realized I’d been in pain from God. From what I thought was God. I don’t know if that made sense. It wasn’t that God inflicted the pain, it’s that God took the blame for inflicting the pain and holding it against my brother was like I was holding it against God. And I wept and wept and I wept as I forgave Jesus for something he didn’t do, but someone else did.
I don’t want to sound curmudgeonly, but what are things coming to? Couldn’t there be just a touch more theological formation offered to those aspiring to lean over the glass podium, generously arrayed in a wispy, haphazardly decorated T, plastic water bottle at the ready, pondering aloud the strange relationship between God and his creatures? I know it’s expensive to go to school, but maybe there could be some way for people who want to teach others to get a little bit of time to work it out under the tutelage of someone besides the Bethel Phenomenon. Or maybe not. Perhaps I’m being unreasonable.
The thing is, as so many have noticed for the last two thousand years, it’s really troubling what the Lord Jesus did when he went on purpose to the cross to die and then invited you to join him. It’s hard to grasp for two reasons. First, it means discovering that you are the Baddie, which is impossible to do without divine help. And, second, it means discovering that Jesus is Good, which, similarly, is so difficult because he does so many upsetting and confusing things—like dying on the cross.
The “preacher” goes astray on both these points, and so, though he is able to know that God is love and that he is a sinner, he is unable to work out the logic of the thing. Crucially, for those who wish to cling to an orthodox view of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, as the piece I linked notes, God did not let us “punish him for our stuff.” God the Father and God the Son purposed together to remove human sin through their own action. Jesus bore the Father’s wrath against sin, not ours. We aren’t generally that angry about sin, as it turns out, except when it is other people’s.
Whereas God, who, it can’t be said often enough, is perfect, holy, righteous, and just cannot have anything to do with anything that corrupts and destroys that which he has made. This puts everything into quite a pickle. How will God dwell with the creatures whom he has made for himself when those creatures have rebelled and sinned against him? What will he do? Will he come in a vision to every hurting and confused person and say he is sorry for doing so many confusing things? No. Perish the thought. When Jesus did weep at the grave of his friend, Lazarus, he was not shedding penitent tears. He was grieving over the effects of our chosen ruin, of sin, of death—even though he was about to do down that greatest enemy in just a very short time.
However, because the “preacher” doesn’t quite know the conditions under which the Son set his face like flint for the cross, he doesn’t know what to do with his own pain. He knows to take it to the Lord, indeed even to the cross, but he doesn’t know what happened in that dark, precious hour, nor the reasons for which Jesus there died. He has a good inkling—that it’s about forgiveness—but, like a progressive trying to work out the logic of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman a couple of weeks ago—because he has so fully centered himself in the narrative, Jesus ends up being the one to apologize. “It’s as if I hurt you,” says this new, abashed Jesus, “please forgive me.”
This, for the whippersnappers in the back, is called a “category error.” Just because we are called Jesus’ Body—for so, indeed, he calls us—doesn’t mean that when we sin, he sins too. When “the Body,” that is, the Church hurts you, it doesn’t mean that Jesus is hurting you.
This is a crucial distinction, not made often enough. One in the absence of which, I think, so many “churched” people, especially MKs and PKs, shipwreck their faith. Because it will be the case that “the Body of Christ” will injure you in some way. You will suffer as a result of being in some kind of church body, or organization. People who grow up very close to the beating heart of any church or mission organization will be the ones who see and yes, sometimes experience the most intense levels of inevitable pain wrought by sin and wickedness. Those people who call themselves Christians, who are sincerely, and even insincerely trying to follow the Lord are going to sin, and if you are there too, you will be sinned against and therefore suffer.
Ironically (sorry for using this word so much, but every morning I get out my kitchen sheers and start to try to cut away at the thick pall of irony blanketing everything), the “preacher” as he considers his own grief and his confused grappling with the nature of Christ’s essential work, sins grievously against all the people that darkness enshrouded auditorium, listening to him. He is sinning in that he, however unintentionally, is lying about God, lying about the Lord, lying about the nature of his Body and his work.
Whereas, to say that the church is the Body of Christ–which it is–is to say that Jesus has forgiven sinners by his blood, that he has joined them to himself in an unbreakable and eternal spiritual union, that his work on the cross was sufficient to forgive and restore them. If you are a person so forgiven, you must turn around and forgive those who injure you, for God did not spare his own son on your behalf. Forgiveness is the heart of the Christian life because God and his Church are not the same being, but have been joined together by the cross.
The other way to say it is that God does not apologize to you for hurting you. Rather, you repent of your sins and are welcomed into his own Family. There you are healed of all your injuries, you sustain yet more grief as God disciplines you and makes you ever more his child, and you are bound to other believers in ways that trouble and confound the world. You will necessarily find yourself forgiving someone who “hurt you so bad and messed you up emotionally etc.” because Jesus went into the pit to pull you—and the person who hurt you—out and make you whole. He does the work of joining you to his Body.
Why does it matter? Why must the Christian and the Preacher be so clear about this? Because if you think that the Church is Jesus, you will become embittered and alienated. You won’t go to Jesus for help. You will gradually begin to think that you are God and other Christians are the devil. And, after a while, you won’t love Jesus, you will hate his Church, and you will not be joined to his Body.
Would that every single person in that building stood up and walked out when that poor young man said those awful words. Would that those who purport to proclaim the words of life would know what they are. If you have a second, on your way to—hopefully—a real church this morning, join me in praying for God to have mercy, for Jesus to be proclaimed rightly and truly in every place that emblazons his name anywhere in their “worship spaces.” More also, don’t be driven away entirely because some men are liars. The blood of Jesus was strong enough to save you, it is strong enough to bring even your enemy into eternal life as well–if he repents.