Jason Micheli: The Syntax of Salvation

"Hi, I'm Janice," she said.

Just before the pandemic, I preached at an Episcopal Church in Greenwich, Connecticut, and later in the afternoon I boarded the Amtrak train back to D.C. I'd sat down and already had my tablet resting on the Bible that was resting on the tray table. Not only did the big Bible serve as a warning to ward off unwanted chitchat with strangers - a sort of force-field of personal space - I aimed to knock out a sermon during the return trip. I figured that on the half-empty train the fear of COVID would prove enough for people to leave me alone. But just in case I was wrong, I resisted the urge to remove the clergy collar I'd worn for the morning service.

It's bad enough to get stuck on a train next to a Christian; I figured no one wants to sit next to a professional Christian. But after rustling through her purse and pulling out a copy of Get Out of Your Head by Jennie Allen, she said to me, "Hi, I'm Janice."

"Hi," I said, turning towards her in case she'd missed my clerical monkey suit.

She had long white hair wrapped in braids. She was wearing a hippie-sort of linen dress and had tattooed clover wrapped around her arm. She was, I counted, wearing not one, but at least five different religious symbols on her hemp necklace. "Headed home or going somewhere?" she asked, not even registering my clergy collar.

"Going home," I said, staring back at my tablet.

But Janice wasn't receiving my signals. "I'm going to DC to visit a friend."

"Uh huh." I coughed, trying to provoke a little pandemic fright.

"Do you have any suggestions for what we should see while I'm there?" she asked.

Without stopping my typing, I said something bland about the National Mall and for a few precious moments there was silence.

But then - "Are you religious?" she asked. She sounded almost incredulous as she pointed at the Bible.

"Excuse me?"

"You've got a Bible on your lap - don't tell me you're a Christian." She said "Christian" like that was a worse diagnosis than COVID. But I just nodded, staring again at my tablet screen. "Interesting," she said, "I'm a Unitarian myself."

"Great," I thought. "Just great. Lord, what have I ever done to you? Lord, you trap me on a train next to a Unitarian." As if the Lord was answering my griping, Janice interrupted my inner monologue.

"People say it's not polite to discuss religion or politics with strangers, but I think that's ridiculous, don't you?" And before I could muster a response, Janice launched into her dragnet, prefacing every question with the phrase, "You don't really believe... do you?"

"You don't really believe in the resurrection, like literal, do you?" Which was about the moment I briefly and sinfully considered throwing Janice from the moving train. She was like a reporter at a campaign stop, firing feeding frenzy questions at me. Surely you don't believe in Jesus' miracles, do you? You don't seriously think Jesus was - God? The virgin birth... don't tell me you...?

And with my every "yes," she regarded me with sad fascination, as if she'd suddenly discovered a wooly mammoth trapped in time and ice. "How do you manage to hold to a pre-enlightened faith, she pressed, given everything we now know now about the universe?"

"I don't know," I said. "You seem to be able to make time stand still."

"What was that?"

"Oh, nothing," I said, "just wondering about our next stop."

As we pulled into Philadelphia, Janice took a sort of cleansing breath and sighed. "You don't really believe God said any of that, do you? God speaking...?"

And she laughed like it was the most ridiculous proposition in the world.


"The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 'Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.'"

A few years ago, in an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Revelation Revised," Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, wrote: "Any claim of revelation is preposterous. It presumes that God exists, that God speaks, and that all is not lost when human beings translate that speech into ordinary language."

Stephen Prothero's rejection of revelation reflects a skepticism which many people - many church people, in fact - share. Let's be honest. If I had told you that Janice was a United Methodist instead of a Unitarian, would any of you have been surprised? I doubt you'd find it disqualifying.

It's one thing to hold religious beliefs like "God is love," but it's another thing altogether to believe that God is a talkative God. It's one thing to be on a spiritual journey. It's quite a different matter to believe that the Living God journeys to you through the Holy Spirit and, by the word of God, addresses you.

No doubt Professor Prothero did not intend it as such, but those two sentences in his article are the perfect distillation of biblical faith. As Karl Barth taught, the question the Bible answers is not, "Does God exist?" The Bible threatens us by answering a more disarming question, "What has the God who exists said?"

According to Barth, all of scripture and the entire Christian faith hang on the veracity of three little words from our text today, "And God said..."

Everything we believe as Christians follows from those three little words - it's the syntax of salvation. Think about it - without a loquacious God, you have no basis whatsoever to believe (much less, bear witness to such a belief) that God loves you. You have no way of knowing that Almighty God loves you unless God has really truly said so.


Years ago, a worshipper came up to me after service and introduced himself. "Hi, I'm John Bobo," he said. "I'm new here, and I want to talk to you about transferring my membership to this congregation."

"Really? What makes you want to join this church?"

"The preaching," he replied.

"Oh," I said, as I felt my head swell a little bigger. "You think the preaching's pretty good, do you?"

"Good? No. No, you're not very good, sorry. But you do preach like you really believe God said all this stuff. That's what I want. That's harder to find in the church than you might guess."

I've never forgotten his judgment. The real divide in Mainline Christianity is not over politics or sexuality. It's between those who believe not only that God exists, but that God has actually said something, and those who believe that God might exist, but a God who speaks in and through the Bible sounds preposterous.

That is, we read the Bible anthropologically rather than theologically. Anthropos, meaning "humanity." Theos, meaning "God." We wriggle out of having to believe in a loquacious God by reading the Bible anthropologically instead of theologically. I know that sounds academic, but the difference is easy to muster out.

For example, a theological reading of Jonah 3 says the Word of the Lord is the subject of the first verb here; therefore, Jonah is a story about God, not Jonah - or us. The Bible tells the story of God's search for us, not our journey to God.

An anthropological reading, on the other hand, makes God the object of our verbs. Thus, the Bible becomes the material with which we seek God.

Think about the film Noah from a few years ago, starring Russell Crowe. We're so used to reading the Bible anthropologically that we don't even notice how it manifests in films like Noah. God never speaks to Noah in Noah. Unlike in the Book of Genesis, Noah in the movie Noah only senses that God is speaking to him. God's in his head. Rather than revelation of the Living God who speaks to Noah, extra nos - outside of us - to judge and save sinful humanity, the film Noah was about religion, telling the story of a spiritually attuned person who discerns the will of an otherwise silent God.

Perhaps you're sitting there thinking to yourself right now, "Well, I've never heard God speak outside of me before." Wrong. People, you just heard the God who gives life to the dead say to you, "Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." That was the present-tense Word of God. The Bible is not simply a record of what God has said. It is the means by which the Living God says.


I remember shortly after I became a Christian I attended a youth retreat in Tennessee. One morning after breakfast the leaders handed us notebooks and pens and sent us out individually into the woods for "quiet time" to listen for what the Lord might be speaking to each of us.

A dinner bell signaled the end of "quiet time," and we gathered into a circle to share what we'd heard God say. When it came time for me to offer up what I heard, I told the truth. "I got nothing," I said. And the retreat leaders shook their heads, disappointed in me. I lacked the wisdom and the gumption to object with what I would say today. "How do you expect God to speak to us if you send us out without God's word?"

Here's the thing. You don't have to search out God - not in nature, not in your head, and not in your heart. You don't have to search our God anywhere else, but in his Word. If you want to speak to God, pray. If you want to hear God speak to you, listen to the Gospel.

The Gospel is the promise that gives us Christ himself. This belief, more than anything else, is what makes us Protestants. God speaks to you just as any other person speaks to you - through his words. You can't get to know another person by listening to what's in your heart. People exist outside of you, and if you want to know them, you have to listen to what they say.


The theologian Steven Paulson tells the story of one of his seminary students who took his first church out in the hinterlands of Minnesota. After a few weeks, the newly minted pastor called Professor Paulson to update him on his new parish.

"How do you fire a volunteer?" he asked. Dr. Paulson asked him what he meant, and the rookie pastor replied, "There's this old widow in the congregation. She's here every day sweeping the hallways with her straw broom. She's mean and rude, and she does a terrible job of sweeping and cleaning."

"Maybe there's a reason she needs to be there day after day. Try finding out what it is, and if it is, don't waste any time. Give her the goods. Lay the Gospel on her," the professor said.

Paulson says a few days later the student called him again. "Dr. Paulson, Dr. Paulson, I did it. I asked her why she spent so much time at church, but seemed so miserable doing it."


"And she told me, 'Forty years ago, I cheated on my husband with another man, and twelve years ago he died without ever knowing I had betrayed him.' So, I did what you told me," the student told the professor, "I said to her, 'In the name of Jesus Christ and by his authority alone, I absolve you of all your sins.' And as soon as I gave her the absolution, her whole countenance changed and she said, 'I have been here Sunday after Sunday, day after day, week after week, for forty years pushing this God-forsaken broom, waiting to hear God say that to me.'"

The professor laughed and said, "Amen."

"Wait, it gets better," the student added. "No sooner had she told me she'd been waiting to hear God speak, she threw the broom down on the floor and said, 'I don't have to do this anymore,' and she walked out the front door. Free."

God reiterates himself every time you relay the promise of the Gospel to another.


"You don't really believe God said any of that, do you?" Janice asked me, "You don't actually believe God speaks?"

And I thought about that rookie pastor's story and I looked at Janice and said, "I do. God spoke to me just last Sunday and the Sunday before that."

There is always a way out of no way. For God not only exists - the Living Lord is a Loquacious God.