Lent 1C (February 14, 2016)

The Devil quotes Psalm 91 verbatim: “For it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and, ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Proof, the Devil says, that since Jesus is the Son of God he will have an entourage of angels. The Devil is “proof-texting.” Proof-texting happens when we pull words or phrases out of context and use them as citations to support our point of view. Proof-texting comes in many shapes. Some instances of proof-texting are downright amusing. You know in Luke 22 Jesus says, “the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.” I’ve heard this used to say Jesus endorses the personal stockpiling of automatic firearms. Completely ignores the context, Luke’s use of sword imagery, and Jesus’ rejection of violence 13 verses later.

Other examples are more insidious. How often do we hear the quote from First John, “God is love”? Absolutely true, but it occurs in the midst of warnings about the anti-Christ, the demand to worship Jesus as God, and a call to love neighbor. Or how about whenever the church faces a cultural shift and someone says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”? They are beautiful words from Paul, but they are delivered to a Roman church deeply divided by worldly classifications—Jew versus Greek—and they have nothing to do with rejecting the world and everything to do with Paul’s dream that we will be united in Christ.

How can a God who renounces violence, demands faithful worship, and makes no distinctions between his followers become transformed into a wishy-washy blob of warm fuzzies who occasionally resorts to vigilante justice and hates the things you hate? Proof-texting: the devil’s preferred interpretive method. Proof-texting takes the Bible, a Holy Thing, and uses it to block access to God. Theologian Ted Peters has argued that this is the true meaning of blasphemy: the attempt to steal power from divine symbols. Scripture should reveal God. Proof-texting robs Scripture of its power to reveal God, and uses Scripture for selfish interests. Peters contends that blasphemy, thus understood, is “at the bottom of our descent into the pit of sin and evil.” In other words, about the worst thing there is.

A list of all possible examples would prove unwieldy. Let’s keep it simple and alarming, shall we? Let’s look at Jesus. We Christians like to reduce Jesus to a sublime abstraction. We hear Christ’s promise of peace for our hearts, and we use this to hide our guilty consciences. Consider the Syrian war refugees. This is still a thing, by the way. We are tempted say God wants us to be at peace, so we’ll turn away people who might inconvenience us, or we’ll welcome only the Christians, or we will assume that because ISIS terrorists might be taking advantage of the chaos to slip in the thing Christ would have us do is preserve our quiet, peaceful repose but just not letting anyone interrupt it.

We Christians also like to use Christ to ignore sin. We hear Christ’s promise of universal reconciliation, and we use it “to ignore the fact that Jesus died as a direct result of historical sins.” How many of us have seen the humanitarian disaster at Flint, MI? The children of Flint will never be whole because of the lead in their water. Their brains will never develop properly. They live on top of Lake Huron but the Governor of Michigan opted to save a few dollars by pumping corrosive water through bad pipes. We are tempted to hear God’s promise of reconciliation, and therefore refuse to name the sin that led to this, and consider any attempts to hold the responsible parties accountable to be, frankly, none of the Church’s business.

We Christians also love how much Christ loves us. We hear his promise of personal relationship with us, and we’re tempted use it to say that whatever we are doing must be okay because Jesus loves us. How many congregations in Valparaiso won’t welcome LGBT Christians, and then blame their closed doors on Jesus? (Trinity is unusual, here.) Or how many times do we hear someone claim Christ as the reason they are exempt from having to grant basic rights to someone? Or claim Christ as the reason divorced people aren’t welcome in Church. Or claim Christ as the reason we shame a woman who has an abortion? Or Christ as the reason we block access to birth control? “It’s okay, everybody; I can act this way: I’ve got Christ!”

In each of these cases, we’re using Jesus to block access to God. We’re putting ourselves above God, claiming God is at our disposal, and then using God’s name to exclude. It is precisely what the Devil in Luke wants Jesus to do. He wants Jesus to use his power for selfish gain (maybe, give himself some bread at the cost of potable water for Flint); or to embrace the security of being lord of all the nations (maybe, to make himself the criterion for whether refugees will have food and shelter); or to depend upon his deep, personal relationship with his father to let him justify his prejudices (maybe, to make sure anyone who doesn’t fit in understands clearly that they aren’t wanted). Jesus refuses. Jesus does not debate with the Devil. He does not allow himself to be lured into discussing whether or not the Devil really does hold all the kingdoms in his hand, or whether God the Father truly loves him. Jesus doesn’t do this because he knows the Devil just wants him to use holy things—himself—to deny people access to God.

Jesus is all about granting access to God. To those who would use Jesus to turn away Syrian war refugees, Jesus says “‘A wandering Syrian was my ancestor.’ I will share the first fruits of my harvest with them.” To those who would use Jesus to say, “God doesn’t want us to endanger our stability by demanding justice for Flint,” Jesus says, “Yes, it does say ‘the angels will bear you up’; it also says you’ll step on lions and vipers…and that’s not pleasant.” To those who would use Jesus to justify their prejudices and hang-ups, Jesus responds by going straight to those whom we would shame, and welcomes them before even acknowledging us. It is as Paul writes to his deeply divided Roman church: “‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.” That’s how we know Jesus is the Son of God: he refuses to use holy things to block access to God, and instead carries out his work of granting access to God.

Through the Holy Spirit, God calls us to be brothers and sisters of Christ, Children of God who refuse to designate ourselves as obstacles to God but instead use holy things to grant access to God. It’s a tall order. Our world’s prevailing narrative on Christians is that we use our relationship with Christ to justify bigotry, that Christ’s call to be reconciled scares us from questions of justice, and that we consider the needs of others to be threats to our security. And when we do nothing to dispel that narrative, we prove it is true.

So instead we offer the Word, God’s promise that your life is not an obstacle to God’s loving you. We offer the Bath, water filthy with the sins of the world and Christ playing in the middle of it—he’s got his toy boats and he is refusing to get out, no matter what it was that you need to get washed off of you. We offer the Meal, food for all and not just the God man who can make it. We offer Forgiveness, not the promise that we have no sin but rather the promise that Jesus can overcome it. We offer community: ourselves, given up as a sign to each other and to the world that the God who sent the Son into the world does in fact bear you up…on the hands of Christ’s brothers and sisters. We offer these things, for in them, Christ offers himself to us.

And in them, Christ offers himself and us…to Flint, MI. To wandering Arameans. To those whose humanity the world shames. To us, when we are the ones in need, when we are the ones whose life is a wreck. Christ offers himself. No distinctions. No exceptions. Christ is all about using us to grant access to God.