October 19, 2017

The Homily

Robert Farrar Capon, 1925-2013

Robert Farrar Capon, 1925-2013

“I thought you might like these. They were Michael’s.” With that, Denise Spencer handed over a box of books that had belonged to her husband, our founder, Michael Spencer. There were baseball books and books on anger. But the books in the box that made me want to dance were the books by a former Anglican priest turned food critic, Robert Farrar Capon.

It was only a couple of years before that I had been talking with Michael about our favorite topic, grace. “If you want to read the best book on grace,” he said, “get Capon’s Between Noon And Three. But don’t let anyone see you reading it. It is scandalous and scary and will get you in no end of trouble.” With that, I ordered the book immediately. And that is when the trouble began.

iMonk commenter Dave D. said yesterday regarding Capon, “He was brave enough to tell me about grace without pulling any punches, and through him Jesus broke my jaw and knocked me sensible.” I could not have said it better. Capon’s writings changed my life more than any other author. All I thought was settled in my theology was sent flying into the face of a hurricane. I could almost hear Capon laughing when I complained that God’s grace could not be that free. The Good News could not really be that good. Could it?

As we gather this morning, I have invited Fr. Capon to share about this ridiculous, too-good-to-be-true Gospel of Grace from his writings. And while he has a new home now in Heaven, he has graciously agreed to speak with us today.

Father Capon:

Our preachers tell us the wrong story entirely, saying not a word about the dark side—no, that’s too weak—about the dark center of the Gospel. They can’t bring themselves to come within a country mile of the horrendous truth that we are saved in our deaths, not by our efforts to lead a good life. Instead, they mouth the canned recipes for successful living they think their congregations want to hear. It makes no difference what kind of success they urge on us: “spiritual” or “religious” success is as irrelevant to the Gospel as is success in health, money or love. Nothing counts but the cross.

Congregations are equally guilty. Preaching is a two-way street: what is said in a sermon depends every bit as much on the listeners as it does on the preacher. If the folks in the pews are constantly running old, happy-ending films inside their heads, they’ll make sure he or she gets the message that they’re not going to sit still for anybody who tries to sell them a dead God on the cross. The incompetence of it all is just too much for them.

I think good preachers should be like bad kids. They ought to be naughty enough to tiptoe up on dozing congregations, steal their bottles of religion pills, spirituality pills, and morality pills, and flush them all down the drain. The church, by and large, has drugged itself into thinking that proper human behavior is the key to its relationship with God. What preachers need to do is force it to go cold turkey with nothing but the word of the cross—and then be brave enough to stick around while it goes through the inevitable withdrawal symptoms.

Guilt is supremely useless—and unscriptural to boot. There is no word in the New Testament that corresponds to what we now mean by it. Our fascination with guilt is a blind alley because the New Testament isn’t about guilt at all; it’s about forgiveness. The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world, not laid them on us like a coat of tar. Furthermore, we celebrate that absolution every Sunday in the Nicene Creed: “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” Notice what a remarkable statement that is: it proclaims that by the grace of God, we live all our lives in an irremovable suit of forgiveness. It tells us that every sin we ever commit will be committed inside that suit—and therefore that every sin in our lives is forgiven before, during and after our commission of it. We don’t need to get forgiveness; we need to learn how to cheer up in the forgiveness we’ve had all along.

The life of grace is not an effort on our part to achieve a goal we set ourselves. It is a continually renewed attempt simply to believe that someone else has done all the achieving that is needed and to live in relationship with that person, whether we achieve or not. If that doesn’t seem like much to you, you’re right: it isn’t. And, as a matter of fact, the life of grace is even less than that. It’s not even our life at all, but the life of that Someone Else rising like a tide in the ruins of our death.

I think it was an early Christian writer who had the boldness to call the sentence of death pronounced on Adam in Genesis the “first proclamation of the Gospel”—of the Good News that our death, in and by Jesus’ death, with be our salvation. Even our death in sin. God will indeed take back the management of creation. But he will take it back only as he took it on in the first place: by letting things be, even by letting our sins be. With nails through his hands and feet, at three o’clock on a dark Friday afternoon, he will die our now unmanageable death, take our disastrous knowledge of good and evil down into the darkness of his dead human mind, and by refusing to play God by our rules, he will restore our freedom to be human again in the silence of Jesus’ tomb. All we can do, or need to do, is trust him.

Trust him. And when you have done that, you are living the life of grace. No matter what happens to you in the course of that trusting—no matter how many waverings you may have, no matter how many suspicions that you have bought a poke with no pig in it, no matter how much heaviness and sadness your lapses, vices, indispositions, and bratty whining may cause you —you believe simply that Somebody Else, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, and you just say thank you and shut up. The whole slop-closet full of mildewed performances (which is all you have to offer) is simply your death; it is Jesus who is your life. If he refused to condemn you because your works were rotten, he certainly isn’t going to flunk you because your faith isn’t so hot. You can fail utterly, therefore, and still live the life of grace. You can fold up spiritually, morally, or intellectually and still be safe. Because at the very worst, all you can be is dead —and for him who is the Resurrection and the Life, that just makes you his cup of tea.

My life is a witness to vulgar grace—a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up a ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifs, ands or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request—”Please, remember me”—and assures him, “You bet!” A grace that is the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus the Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but for our sakes, yours and mind.  This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.

Let us pray.

Comments

  1. “Grace is enough. He is enough.”

    We’d all better hope so.

    Thank God for RFC.

    May the Lord have mercy upon his soul.

  2. I agree with much of this. Grace is indeed scandalous and vulgar, common. I once read something by Cappon in which he took exception with the then current craze of theologians frequently resorting to Bonhoeffer’s criticism of “cheap grace”; Cappon said that grace is even worse than “cheap”: it is free, and common.

    But note: in the the first few sentences of the seventh paragraph of the above quote, Cappon says we simply need to trust, or believe in, Jesus; later in the same paragraph he says “If he refused to condemn you because your works were rotten, he certainly isn’t going to flunk you because your faith isn’t so hot..” He is making a distinction between faith and trust; we need to trust Jesus, or believe him, but this trust or belief is not the same as faith, which he states has the same relationship to salvation as works, which is none.

    I find this confusing, since faith and trust, or belief, in Jesus seem to me to be first and foremost the same thing; if trust or belief is the linchpin of receiving and residing in God’s grace, but it is not the same as faith, which bears the same relationship to grace that works do according to Cappon, then what is trust, belief? Very confusing.

    Also: Jeff, I respect your decision to go over to Rome, but I can’t square it with your admiration of Cappon, who is very Reformation. I’ve seen comments illustrating the similarity between Cappon’s thought and Merton’s (I see it, too: Cappon seems like Merton in a pastoral mode), and saying that this means that Catholicism is easily reconciled with Cappon, but Merton was not a your average or even normal Catholic, especially later in his life becoming very idiosyncratic; witness what some Catholics feel was his inordinate interest in and practice of Zen.

    Some observations and questions.

    • Dan Crawford says:

      Robert F, what most attracted me to Capon was that he was anything but Reformation: he has a profound sacramental theology, and even his theology of grace is “catholic” if one includes the entire history of the church – reformation teaching about grace didn’t suddenly erupt on Halloween 1517.

      • Well, I was baptized as an infant and then catechized throughout my childhood in the Roman Catholic church, and I was never taught anything remotely like what Capon has to say about grace, however lower case “c” catholic it may actually be. When I say that his teaching on grace is very Reformation, what I mean is that it assert the radical nature of grace in language that was recovered by the Reformation.

    • Robert F wrote;

      But note: in the first few sentences of the seventh paragraph of the above quote, Cappon says we simply need to trust, or believe in, Jesus; later in the same paragraph he says “If he refused to condemn you because your works were rotten, he certainly isn’t going to flunk you because your faith isn’t so hot..” He is making a distinction between faith and trust; we need to trust Jesus, or believe him, but this trust or belief is not the same as faith, which he states has the same relationship to salvation as works, which is none.

      I find this confusing, since faith and trust, or belief, in Jesus seem to me to be first and foremost the same thing; if trust or belief is the linchpin of receiving and residing in God’s grace, but it is not the same as faith, which bears the same relationship to grace that works do according to Cappon, then what is trust, belief? Very confusing.

      Robert, methinks that Capon does not make a distinction between “trust” and “faith”, though I do think that in that paragraph he substitutes “trust” with “faith” in order to highlight the traditional mistaken emphasis we often place in our dichotomizing of “works” vs. “faith”. Literary ploy.

      The object of our faith is not faith itself, rather the subject of Jesus Christ who’s faithfulness to God was/is absolute and worthy to be trusted.

      Addressing the second paragraph of your quoted section…since God’s grace is universal and “common” there is nothing that we can do which is the “linchpin” of receiving that grace. Capon’s point is that because of what God accomplished in Christ everyone is already a recipient and beneficiary of grace. When we come to that understanding we are freed to live into that reality—which doesn’t “save” us (that’s already been accomplished)—but it does mean that we begin to enjoy that blessedly present relationship.

      Here is how Capon illustrates that point;

      Faith first;

      Faith doesn’t do anything; it simply enables us to relate ourselves to someone else who has already done whatever needs doing.

      Illustration: Imagine that I am in the hospital, in traction, with casts on both arms and both legs. And imagine further that every time you visit me, I carry on despairingly about the fact that my house, in my absence, is falling apart: the paint is peeling, the sills are rotting, the roof is blowing away in the wind.

      But then imagine that one day, after a considerable interval, you come to me and say, “Robert, I have just paid off the contractor I engaged to repair your house. It’s all fixed — a gift from me to you.” What are my choices in the face of such good news? I cannot go out of the hospital to check for myself—I cannot know that you have fixed my house for me. I can only disbelieve you or believe you. If I disbelieve you, I go on being a miserable bore. But if I believe you — if I trust your word that you have done the job for me — I have my first good day in a long while. My faith, you see, accomplishes nothing but my own enjoyment.

      Look at it another way. Suppose I had decided, while staring at the hospital ceiling, that if only I could work up enough faith, you would undertake to repair my house. And suppose further that I had grunted and groaned through every waking hour trying to get my faith meter up to red hot. What good would that have done unless you had decided, as a gift to me in response to no activity on my part whatsoever, to do the job for me? No good, that’s what. Faith doesn’t fix houses — carpenters and painters do. And faith doesn’t pay bills, either. Faith, therefore, is not a gadget by which I can work wonders. It is just trust in a person who actually can work them — and who has promised me he already has.

      Sacrament next. By sacrament, I mean a real presence, under a particular sign in a particular time and place, of something that’s already present everywhere. It’s not just a de novo production of that something or a mental reminder of that something, but the same old something itself present under a renewable sign. Take a kiss between two lovers: it’s not some third thing that merely represents their love; it’s their whole, already present love, re-presented — made really present again — at a specific point under a specific sign.

      The Eucharist, for example (to take the highest view of it), is precisely a sacrament. It’s not a transaction — not the mixing up of a fresh batch of the body and blood of Jesus so we can reinsert him into our lives. Nor is it merely a reminder of some wonderful things that a onetime Jesus did for us a great many Fridays and Sundays ago. It’s the real presence, under the signs of bread and wine, of the Jesus who has indwelt all our lives, in all his power, all along. To take another example, the Passover is a sacrament. It’s not just a casting back of the communal mind to a liberation that happened once in a distant past, nor is it the celebration of a liberation newly arrived because we have somehow activated it. It is the real presence, at this year’s celebration, of the same old liberation that has made us who we have been all along. Witness the words of the Seder ritual in the Haggadah:

      “In every generation, we should feel as though we ourselves had gone forth from Egypt, as it is written, “And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I, myself, went forth from Egypt.'”

      And so, by the same token, the church is a sacrament. It’s not a Kitchen-Aid mixer that produces the dough of redemption from scratch for people who didn’t have cookies before, nor is it just a Kmart aisle sign to remind us that it might be a nice idea to think about making cookies. It’s the sign of the real presence of the goodies of salvation in everyone, everywhere, from square one. It’s God’s same old sweets, repackaged.

      (pg. 41-42, The Astonished Heart, Robert Capon)

      Sorry for the long comment, but Capon is only “simple” if we’ve never been indoctrinated by the vulgar Evangelical Circus ;o)

      • Thanks, Tom. I was starting to see what you just pointed out as I re-read the quote a while ago: he’s talking about living the life of grace consciously rather than having to achieve a level of faith to stay in the grasp of grace. Thanks for illumining the way for me and corroborating what I was beginning to see.

        And yet, Capon does seem to believe that people can repudiate the salvation and grace that Jesus freely gives everyone; it’s just that this is not an easy thing to do: it takes hard work and stubborn insistence on making one’s own way, making one’s own fate. If we just go with the flow, we will be held in the stubborn hand of God’s grace all the way forever and ever.

        Regarding sacrament: this is not the traditional Catholic conception at all. Capon seems to be saying that in the Holy Eucharist the universal sacramental presence of God throughout creation and in all people is revealed through the elements of bread and wine; nothing new is happening, but what God is doing all the time everywhere is being revealed and shared with the gathered community.

        Interesting stuff.

        And even less do I understand how this can be squared with Roman Catholicism. Which is fine with me, since I love the Reformation, and Capon seems to be an especially radical son of the Reformation.

        • Robert, regarding Capon’s view/use of “sacrament”;

          I think you are certainly correct that his is not the same as the RC dogma. However, I find it closer to the RC view than I do the general view espoused within the Evangelical Circus. In my current experience with the Episcopal Eucharist I find that in the wording is something of a hybrid between transubstantiation and consubstantiation. Seems to me that Capon stands solidly on that hybrid and unabashedly proclaims that since all is of Christ and so our lives in toto are a sacrament of the presence of God. Perhaps that is more EO than RC. (?)

          And yes, I agree that Capon is a radical son of the Reformation, a son much closer to Luther than to Zwingli.

          • Capon’s epitaph should read: “Sin boldly, but trust and rejoice in Christ even more boldly”.

          • Tom,

            The classical Anglican via media was not the middle way between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, as is often said, but rather the middle way between Zurich and Wittenberg, though Capon seems to have more of the Luther’s festive spirit than Zwingli’s parsing censoriousness.

          • Some Anglicans I’ve said say that the “via media” refers to reformation theology with Catholic tradition. Personally, I believe Lutheranism is more deserving of the term.

    • Here’s how I see this: Salvation, at the end of the day, is ultimately by works. Grace is neither cheap nor free; it cost Christ greatly. And it is HIS works which save us, not our own. Now, faith itself IS a work. However, faith is not our work. It is something worked by somebody else, in us. I do not believe that I one day caused myself to start believing, but rather, that by means of His Word and Sacraments, faith was authored in me, and is daily sustained by the same, and not by anything that I do. Some days I trust Christ more than others. Some days I completely resent the fact that I have any trust in him at all. But I do feel precious little ability to make myself stop believing, because it was never something I took up doing in the first place.

  3. One further question: if grace really is vulgar and common, as Capon (sorry for the incorrect spelling in my above comments) says and I agree, then is it just possible that it is as vulgar and common as the Evangelical Circus?

  4. I do love the way that Capon uses language that borders on the language that I used to love so much in the Zen literature.

    Die while still alive
    Then you will be completely free

    Capon is constrained to go beyond what the texts say, because he knows, like the Zen masters knew about their own texts, that only a “poor fool is attached to the Scriptures”; only in Capon’s case, it’s “only a poor fool is attached to the Scriptures” instead of to the Lord for whom they exist.

    • Yes, and Jesus used the same language and stated a similar warning to those who focused on the telescope (text) without looking through the instrument to see the Divine Subject.

  5. I wonder if any of the round table participants would be willing to revisit this novel/ theme and have the three years since changed their observations? (http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/writers-roundtable-discussion-of-robert-capons-between-noon-and-three)

    Jim

  6. There are distinctions to faith. Notitia and assensus being areas of cognition and fiducia being an area of will. It’s interesting to notice Christians who have expressed sentiments similar to Fr. Capon throughout history. Luther, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Barth, and Don Miller come to mind. And I think it’s interesting how those who start with the above mentioned follow into scholasticism. It just seems like a path that fideism takes naturally. And I think this piece written by Fr Capon is a homily to trust, a childlike faith, a call to not succumb to additions. I’m going to try to state what I’m saying in Old and New Testament terms. The willingness of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. An eternal perfect being becoming human. It’s just beyond belief. It isn’t rational. Trusting the person requires crossing a threshold( To explain is hard to find the words). I like the emphasis by Fr. Capon on a relationship that requires nothing from us. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be like the cat named Joey in a homily by Lisa Dye.. This is surprisingly, unbelievable, tears of joy, peace, good news.

  7. Capon also overturned all my nice, neat concepts of grace like no author has ever done. We need more like him.

    Which of his books is this excerpt from?

  8. Sorry, I just don’t get what all of the hubbub is about…Capon’s words are pedantic and too obvious for me. They are a recapitulation of the truth I learned many years ago, the same truth I embrace today. Has Christianity, or should I say “Churchianity” fallen so far that this is news?

    • The Good News will always be news to me…at least, I hope I don’t become so jaded that I don’t see the beauty of its proclamation.

  9. “You can fold up spiritually, morally, or intellectually and still be safe. Because at the very worst, all you can be is dead —and for him who is the Resurrection and the Life, that just makes you his cup of tea.”

    Honest Question: Is this blog post saying what I think it is saying? It seems to imply that God’ grace would be big enough, even if one were to completely lack faith in this god?

    I agree with the commenter above that the distinction between trust/faith/belief here is not clear. In my view, the New Testament does seem to teach that some people will remain dead in their sins; they will miss out on the fruits of the resurrection because their faith (which I would undrstand to include their “trust in God”) was insufficient.

    • Why some hear the gospel and do not come to a living faith and others really do hear it, and are born again, is a question that we are unable to answer.

      But that does seem to be the case.

  10. Yes, for the most part Churchianity is so fallen that even the hint of what Capon pedantically and prodigiously proclaimed is uber-unsettling.

    Capon’s insights gave me a new lease in the Kingdom and a newer and most profound love of our Saviour and Elder Brother.

    Capon has attained the pinnacle of human success–a blessed death in the grip of Christ.

  11. It must be admitted that within Christianity, the gospel of grace is sometimes made two-fold. Primarily, grace is forgiveness, declared and experienced. But secondarily, at the same time, this infusion of grace into the heart makes merit possible. Scholasticism is a resolution of this antimony between grace and merit. Fides caritate formata. Sola gratis challenges it. There is nothing rational about God’s justification of the ungodly. So far from being a rational inference of the moral law of God, it contradicts that law. Forgiveness of sins is not logically compatible with belief that morality is divine. Christ came to show forgiveness to all men. Universalism has many Biblical references, but it is abhorrent to us… lets say a murderer should be forgiven. It brings into play the idiom that who is ok- all are. But we instinctively know that some are not. This entire topic is so about the gospel and exclusiveness, inclusiveness, and plurality. And the truth is that being exclusive or the other positions shows up in our very body language whether we know it or not. I don’t want to argue about Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins” or Don Miller’s book “Searching for God Knows What” but they are contemporary presentations of exactly what Robert Capon is saying here.

    • Yes.

      Capon’s thinking does not reflect classic Roman Catholic moral theology in the least: Capon says, Don’t worry about being a mortal sinner at the moment of death because if you believe/trust in Christ, you’re covered and will be included in the feast of the Lamb for all eternity; Roman Catholicism says, unconfessed mortal sin at the time of death will lead to eternal damnation, all other things being equal, so you need to be very concerned about whether you are in a state of grace at all times.

      What Capon calls living the life of grace renowned Roman Catholic theologian Josef Pieper would call unwarranted and illegitimate, even damnable, presumption.

      • flatrocker says:

        Robert F.
        From the catechism of the Catholic Church:

        1874 To choose deliberately – that is, both knowing it and willing it – something gravely contrary to the divine law and to the ultimate end of man is to commit a mortal sin. This destroys in us the charity without which eternal beatitude is impossible. Unrepented, it brings eternal death.

        1861 Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.

        These RC statements are very much in consonance with Capon. Just because Uncle Charlie or Aunt Rose or Sister Mary Perpetua or Father Joe said so, doesn’t make it true. Poor catechesis is still poor catechesis. Unless of course it reinforces what we are looking for.

        • I do not think Capon is saying the same thing as the sources you cite above; I think, in fact, that they are in agreement with what I was saying about Roman Catholic moral theology. My “all other things being equal” was a shorthand way of referring to the psychological/historical/cultural variables and extenuating circumstances that are mentioned in your reference; none of those mitigate the extraordinary difference between Capon’s understanding and classical Roman Catholic understanding of moral theology. Capon would not even admit a difference between mortal and venial sin, because he is a Protestant, however catholic his Protestantism is.

          Once again, consult Josef Pieper’s (an impeccably orthodox Roman Catholic theologian) “On Hope” for how what Capon teaches is presumptuous and unwarranted according to RC teaching.

        • In fact, I just read a quote from Between Noon and Three in which Capon speaks glowingly of the Reformation as a time when the free wine of grace was discovered in the dusty old cellar of medievalism, and Christians rediscovered after all those centuries of trying to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps that all that was required of them was to get drunk of the wine of freely given grace (I’m paraphrasing broadly but truthfully).

          Whatever Capon may have meant when he said that he was a High Churchmen, he definitely did not mean that he was in agreement with Roman Catholic moral theology; he had the heart of the Reformers in him, but he was even more radical than them.

          • Agreed, Robert.

          • I am a Caponite through and through. How that will fit with my new journey into Catholicism remains to be seen, but I’m looking forward to finding out …

          • I wish you the best, Jeff; the Roman Catholic church is roomy to the point of anonymity, and nobody will be looking over your soul’s shoulder to make sure you’re not consorting with Capon in your heart. Many of the fellow Catholics you will be worshiping with are far more unorthodox (from a Catholic perspective) in their personal religious viewpoints than either you or Capon would ever dream of being, and nobody has bothered them, nor is anyone likely to.

            May the peace of the Lord be always with you

  12. Is his name Capon? If so, that’s unfortunate.

    capón is Spanish for gelding.

  13. Maybe some of you more familiar with Capon’s writings can tell me if I’m right in saying that it looks like he mirrors a lot of what Brennan Manning writes. I discovered Manning’s writings only recently, just before he died. Sounds like I need to do the same with Capon’s stuff.

  14. “The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world, not laid them on us like a coat of tar. Furthermore, we celebrate that absolution every Sunday in the Nicene Creed: ‘We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.’ Notice what a remarkable statement that is: it proclaims that by the grace of God, we live all our lives in an irremovable suit of forgiveness.”

    I love the sound of this very much and want to totally understand. I just don’t know how to reconcile it with some of the things that the Gospel stories have Jesus saying about people “going to hell” because of their behavior. I think I need to read Robin Parry’s The Evangelical Universalist again (pen name: Gregory McDonald) or Rob Bell’s Love Wins. I have read Capon’s <I<Between Noon And Three and another of his books as well. I am sorry that he is no longer among us, at least on this plane of existence, so to speak.

    • Fr. Capon does not deny hell nor that some people will end up there. I think he would say that Jesus died and rose again even for those who will end up in hell, and that those people too are included in the forgiveness of God. And yet, like the older son of the parable, because of their own damnable pride, at the end of the story they are standing outside on the porch instead of inside where the party is.

      • But Capon doesn’t think people go to hell because of their moral behavior; they go to hell because they insist on earning their own way into eternal life. And this insistence is hard work, requiring much effort and repeated repudiation of the finished work of Jesus. In Capon’s theology, people don’t just drift into hell; it takes hard work to get into hell. But going to the eternal feast of the Lamb is just the opposite: there’s no work at all involved in it; it’s easy as can be.

        That’s why when Jesus warned people in the New Testament about the possibility of going to hell, most of the time his warning was addressed to those in places of authority, people who thought of themselves as powerful makers of their own fate, those with confidence in their own ability. Far less frequently did he have such harsh warnings for the nobodies, the fringe-dwellers and the losers who clung desperately to whatever could keep them afloat as they were washed about on the ocean of life. Did he ever speak of hell to such a one?

        • Exactly, Robert.

          In another book Capon uses the Rev. 2 text (“behold I stand at the door and knock…”) to speak of Jesus’ insistence to have us into the party;

          “Listen! I am standing at the door and knocking! If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come into his home and have supper (deípnon) with him, and he with me.”

          I choose this passage not because I intend to make a full commentary on the letters that Jesus, in a vision, told John the Divine to write to the seven churches in Asia but because it enables me to ring some changes on the image I just introduced of the house set in illusory darkness. In those early sections of Revelation, Jesus speaks to John in a vision of light: he is holding seven stars in his right hand and he is walking in the midst of seven golden lampstands. So much for the outer darkness: even as he stands out there on the world’s front step and knocks—even there, outside the door of the swept and ordered house (Lk, 11:25) he has provided for us in his death and resurrection, there is light; even those of us who perversely choose to love the darkness are standing in the Light. And so much for the threat of the seven devils worse than our first uncleanness (Lk 11:26) whom we might possibly invite in to make that house dark again: the judge of the world is on the doorstep and there isn’t room for a single one of them.
          For the judge who stands there is not alone. There is a crowd with him, and it isn’t the cops. It is a party. It is all the guest at the Supper (deípnon) of the Lamb—plus the chefs and the caterer’s crew and the musicians and the stars of the evening—all making an eternal racket, all pleading to bring the party into the house. And they have found our address not because they looked it up in the “books that were opened” at the last judgment before the great white throne (Rev. 20:12)—not because they examined our records and found us socially acceptable—but only because he showed them our names in the “other book that was opened” (Rev. 20:12, again): the Lamb’s book of life.
          Do you see? If he had looked us up in those books, we would all have been judged according to our works (Rev. 20:12, still), and the eternal party would never even have come down our street. But because he only looked us up in the book—because he came to save and not to judge, because in the Lamb’s book we are all okay, all clothed with his righteousness, all drawn infallibly to himself by his being lifted up in death and resurrection—because of that only because of that, he finds the door of every last one of us and lands the party on our porch. All we have to do is say yes to him and open the door. We do not have to earn the party; we already have the party. We do not have to understand the party, or conjure up good feelings about the party; we have only to enjoy the party. Everything else: the earning, the deserving, the knowing, the feeling—our records, our sins, even our sacred guilt—is irrelevant. “No man,” Luther said, “can know or feel he is saved; he can only believe it.” And he can only believe it because there is nothing left for him to do but believe it. It is already here. There is therefore now no condemnation. The Light has come into the world.
          Even at the judgment, therefore, the gracious Light—the Ph?s hilarón—is still the only game in town. When the Lamb stands at the door and knocks, only an inveterate nonsport would say, “Darkness, anyone?”

          (The Parables of Judgment, pgs, 28-29, Robert Capon)

  15. I think many of you who are questioning this passage are barking up the wrong tree. I would suggest that anyone who wants to understand what Fr. Capon is about should follow Jeff’s suggestion and read “From Noon to Three.”

    If you read this, you will most likely begin to understand what is meant by the “vulgar” gospel. To put it simply, any news the proclaims that murderers (and rapists, and thieves, and liars, and gossips and…you get what I’m saying) get off completely free, without having to do their time, pay a fine, or even get a smack on the wrist, is vulgar in the extreme. Any proper religion requires at least a certain amount of hoop jumping, hair shirt wearing, breast beating, rule keeping and cost accounting. But the Gospel eliminates all of that forever and takes all your sin and my sin and the sin of the world, rolls it up into a neat little ball and makes it disappear in the black hole of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus did all that ever needed to be done, once and for all, for everyone that it needed doing for. Everyone. Even undeserving bastards like me. That is vulgar.

    Fr. Capon does not really pay all that much attention to the mechanics of how Jesus did it. He quite purposely leaves that to others, noting that there has been so much of it he only attempts to provide a slight counterbalance. So questions about this kind of faith or that kind of trust — he doesn’t quibble too much. Mostly however, because he sees it as simply beside the point. It’s like asking why the gas-air mixture explodes in your engine when the spark goes off. It does and the car takes off.

    Jesus did it. We are free. Proclaim it. Live like it.

    Let God worry about working out the faith part. He has a pretty good handle on it.

    Be warned. If you read FNTT there is a higher than average chance that the book will leave you incensed, baffled, nauseous and infuriated. There is also a higher than average chance that it will cause you to be filled with joy, overcome with hilarity, weak with relief and perhaps even feeling that finally — finally — you can rest. And for some of you, like me, it will do both at the same time.

    If you read him more widely, you may find answers to some of your more technical questions. I think that when it comes to theological mud wrestling, Fr. Capon could hold his own in the pit. But the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT part of his writing is this:

    Because of Jesus, we are free. Really truly free. Every single blessed one of us. Free. So take up your mats and walk.

    To some that is terrifying. To some it is the best news ever. Pick whichever one you want. But either way, take up your mat and walk.

  16. “we are saved in our deaths, not by our efforts to lead a good life. It makes no difference what kind of success they [preachers] urge on us: “spiritual” or “religious” success is as irrelevant to the Gospel as is success in health, money or love. Nothing counts but the cross….The church, by and large, has drugged itself into thinking that proper human behavior is the key to its relationship with God. What preachers need to do is force it to go cold turkey with nothing but the word of the cross…”

    Really? Then I guess Our Lord had it wrong when He was giving his views of who goes to hell and heaven in Matthew 25:

    “Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 25:35for I was hungry, and ye gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; 25:36naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me. 25:37Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungry, and fed thee? or athirst, and gave thee drink? 25:38And when saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? 25:39And when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? 25:40And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me. 25:41Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels: 25:42for I was hungry, and ye did not give me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink; 25:43I was a stranger, and ye took me not in; naked, and ye clothed me not; sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. 25:44Then shall they also answer, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungry, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? 25:45Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of these least, ye did it not unto me. 25:46And these shall go away into eternal punishment: but the righteous into eternal life. ”

    Not a word there about the cross, or even about faith. The righteous are just as in the dark about what saves them (good deeds for other people) as the wicked are (failure to do such). Jesus doesn’t say, “You’ll go to heaven if you have faith in me and if you trust me, and you’ll go to hell if you don’t.” He says our final destination depends on something else entirely: how we have treated our fellow humans.

    • Let me help you come back to the point where I think Fr. Capon would have led you had you asked him that.

      The sheep in question and their cousins the goats were sent in their respective directions based in their reaction to someone. Who was it? Hint: He is also known as the The Door, The Way, and The Resurrection.

      OK then.

      So with that in mind consider first who Jesus is (see above). Second, consider what happened to those he met. Third consider what he did. Then tell me about his relationship to (and his sacramental embodiment of) all those who are hungry, thirsty, abandoned, naked, sick and imprisoned. And then follow that line to what Jesus is saying about how we react to him.

      Who in his resurrection has brought all of humanity into himself? What does it mean to be “in Christ” and who is “in Christ?”

      I’m not sure if that answer (or those questions) really helps you, but I think that’s the kind of answer Father Capon would give although he would have put in a few more verbal pyrotechnics.

  17. Pastor Bill Metzger says:

    Wow-two incredible preachers of wild, radical grace-Brennan Manning, and now Robert Capon-have gone home! Let’s NEVER lose the legacy they have left for us and to us. Ephesians 2:1-9!!!

    • …and Dallas Willard.
      I am grateful for the written work of these three men. They left an incredible legacy of wisdom and grace.

  18. Pastor Bill Metzger says:

    Indeed go, no, RUN out as fast as you can to buy “Between Noon and Three”. You’ll never understand or preach “grace” the same after you read this scandalous book. Half.com has copies at great prices.

  19. cate hamilton says:

    A wonderful tribute, a glorius message,and beautifully written – thank you for sharing – Well done Mr. Dunn !