Self-Knowledge and the Steelers

So, as everyone in the parish learned (when I came out for announcements wearing a team hat) on Sunday, I'm a huge Steelers fan. I come by it honestly, living in Pittsburgh for the three years I was in seminary. What the parish is only beginning to find out, though, is that rooting for the Steelers really throws my lack of sanctification into sharp relief.

Before last week's AFC Championship game against the hometown Jets (my parish, though in New Jersey, is closer to New York than New Meadowlands Stadium, where both the "New York" Jets and Giants play), people started asking me if we were going to have a parish Super Bowl party. We did last year, watching the Colts fall short against Drew Brees and the sentimental favorite New Orleans Saints. Our sanctuary is outfitted with a projector and giant screen, so it's undeniably fun to watch a game there. My stock answer to the Super Bowl question, though, was "Not if the Steelers win tonight." This, of course, only made people more curious. As it turns out, the reason I was only willing to host a Super Bowl party if the Steelers WEREN'T in it was that I didn't want people to see the person I turn into when the Steelers are losing.

Though our church (notably named "Grace Church") preaches a message of Grace and Gospel every day of our lives together, it says something about humans, or at least about me, that I still don't believe that if people REALLY knew what I was like they'd still want to come to my church. I'm an incredibly gracious victor. Unfortunately, I'm a pretty sore loser. I'm also mildly embarrassed that I refer to the Steelers in the first person. You know, as in, "We made the Super Bowl!" I'm even more embarrassed that the ups and downs of a silly football team hold such sway over my emotions. I ride such a high after a win and such a morose down after a loss. It's good for my congregation that I have Mondays off.

This roller coaster ride serves to remind me, though, that it is the miracle of the Gospel that Jesus can truly know us, and yet love us. When it happens amongst humans, it's shocking. It's why people get married. It's also the very cornerstone of the Good News. We are known, in all our sin, our imperfection, and our pettiness. And yet, the Son of God, who knew none of that, no sin, no imperfection, no pettiness, died for us, to reconcile us to God.

It's possible that this knowledge might allow me to survive a Steelers loss in the Super Bowl. I just pray I don't have to find out.

A Little Bit of Pixie Dust

My two-and-a-half year old daughter is really into Disney movies now. She has gone through phases of loving everything from Snow White to Ratatouille. Their catalog is extensive enough that we don't have to repeat very often, though she often gets stuck in a rut, requesting the same film over and over again. The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast are her two favorites. Last night, though, we watched Peter Pan, and, as I sometimes am, I was struck by a theological chord in the first scenes.

When Peter tells the Darling children that they can go with him to Neverland, they ask how to get there. He tells them that they'll fly. When they try and fail, Peter is puzzled. "This won't do," Peter mumurs. "What's the matter with you? All it takes is faith and trust." I could almost hear the frustrated preacher behind those words. "What's the matter with you, congregation of mine? Why aren't you doing Good Christian Thing A or Good Christian Thing B? All it takes is faith and trust!"

Most pastors, and for that matter, Christians in general, have too high a view of human ability (anthropology). We are left wondering what is the matter with us when we try to do something and fail. We wonder why our minds drift to the same selfish or impure places day after day, despite our efforts to control them. We wonder why our children exasperate us so...they're just kids. We wonder why our relationships seem to falter when we've tried so hard to make them work.

But Peter Pan is forgetting something: "All it takes is faith and trust. Oh! And something I forgot...dust! A little bit of pixie dust." And so, the magic ingredient introduced into the situation, flight is possible. Sure it helps to set your mind on "the happiest things," but the pixie dust is the key. It's the fuel that makes the flight go.

In the same way, it is the Holy Spirit that makes our "Christian" lives possible. But unlike Tinkerbell's dust, we can't grab the Holy Spirit and shake a little out. No, it's better than that. The Holy Spirit is promised to us.

But it's the pixie dust that allows for flight, not the quality of the faith and trust of the Darling children, and the Holy Spirit that allows for Christian life in the Christian. Someone said that as one's anthropology increases (as one's opinion of human ability goes up) one's Christology decreases (one's reliance on Jesus goes down). Let's always remember that, without that pixie dust, no one's getting to Neverland.

A Christmas (Carol) Reflection

"Ah! You do not know the weight and length of strong chain you bear yourself! It was as full and as long as this seven Christmas eves ago and you have labored on it since. Ah, it is a ponderous chain!" - Jacob Marley

This is how Jacob Marley responds to Ebenezer Scrooge's curiosity about the nature of the chain his ghost wears in Dickens' more-than-classic "A Christmas Carol." Having watched multiple versions of the film every year for my entire childhood, I thought I knew every in and out of the story.

This year, though, I was struck by something different. I was, of course, in the throes of preparing a sermon (as I often am) as I watched, and my mind had wandered to St. Paul's greeting to his readers in the first letter to the Corinthians. Paul greets the Corinthians as "sanctified in Christ Jesus," "enriched in every way," and not lacking "any spiritual gift." He says that he thanks God for them "because of His grace given [them] in Christ Jesus." He also says that God will keep them "firm to the end, so that you will be blameless of the day of our Lord Jesus Christ." If only people thought I was worthy of such a greeting!

Paul's greeting stands in stark contrast to Marley's. Marley has come to Scrooge to warn him to change his ways, lest he bear a similar burden in the afterlife. Paul seems to be saying, "You're great, and you're going to KEEP being great." And the difference between Scrooge and the Corinthians seems obvious: the Corinthians are faithful Christians, while Scrooge is a terrible sinner. But, as American Beauty suggested, look closer:

In chapter 5 of his letter to these Corinthians, Paul exclaims that "It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. And you are proud!" So the Corinthians are, at the very least, getting something of a mixed message. But it's a mixed message that contains the very truth of the Gospel.

Marley's message for Scrooge is "You are a sinner. Better become a saint."

Paul's message for the Corinthians, and the Bible's message for us, is "You are a sinner. And yet, you are a saint."

The why is the old Sunday School standy: Jesus. "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).

Like Scrooge, we have forged for ourselves a ponderous chain. And yet, every single link is worn by our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Merry Christmas, all year long!
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