Dear People of Bethlehem,
This year I’ve undertaken a series of Pastor’s columns on revitalizing the Gospel message for the sake of the church’s survival. I believe that we have no chance to endure as a community of disciples unless we become more faithful to the Gospel of Jesus in being able to share it with others. To be honest, I’ve come to believe that we do not deserve to survive unless we become more faithful to the Bible’s witness to the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah.
I’ve come to this view over almost forty years of preaching and teaching. It has been a gradual ‘conversion’ throughout that timespan for me. Perhaps this is brand new for you – perhaps shockingly so! – and it’s not easy to hear that the version of the Gospel we grew up with is less faithful to the original Gospel message than it might be. I do understand. This is not easy. And there is certainly much that is good about that version of the Gospel we grew up with.
Last month, I began to propose that it’s time to be honest about the shortcomings of our childhood version of the Gospel — the cost of not revitalizing our Gospel message. It’s time to be honest about why more people are leaving Church than joining. Our children’s and grandchildren’s generations are largely rejecting the overall message as we heard it and lived it. They learn about things like schools for indigenous peoples in North America where the Christian message was literally beat into children with terrible brutality – the tip of the iceberg of violence done in the name of Christ. The current media which they (and we) consume is very honest about it. (The TV show 1923, for example, is currently dramatizing a subplot of brutality at a Catholic school for Native Americans in Montana.) It’s not just stuff from the past, either. Our children and grandchildren still hear much intolerance in churches around issues of gender and sexuality.
A Gospel that supports such history and current practice must be revitalized for the sake, first of all, of faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus himself. But also for the sake of being able to invite our children and grandchildren back to church. If talking about our version of the Gospel as not being faithful enough to Jesus is difficult for you, then please hold our children and grandchildren in your hearts as a motivation for openness to change.
I’m going to stay with this theme for a while, unpacking it a bit at a time. This month, we are reading in worship one of the most revolutionary texts in human history: the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. Mahatma Gandhi considered it the key to better understanding his own Hindu faith and his life of nonviolently standing against the violence of empire. Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer made it the centerpiece of his book on The Cost of Discipleship as he spoke out against the rise of Hitler and Nazism in 1930’s Germany. I believe it is crucial once again in the face of rising authoritarianism across the globe, including here in the United States.
If we are looking for a reason why the Gospel message we grew-up-with had grown less faithful, here it is:
The Sermon on the Mount articulates a revolution of values that stand as a stark alternative to the typical values of human empires. The values and vision and practice of God’s reign turn the values and practices of human empires upside down. But since the Fourth Century, when the church began to ally itself with the Roman Empire, the revolutionary values and practices of Jesus largely got shoved aside – blunted at best, ignored or contradicted at worst.
Christians gradually began to focus on other things, like what one needed to believe in order to go to heaven when we die. That was never the focus of Jesus in the Gospels, nor Paul in his letters! It was what we chose to focus on, so that the empires we supported could go on promoting and practicing its values. We have been encouraged to focus on the afterlife, while the powers-that-be have wreaked havoc in this life.
Our children and grandchildren have seen through the violence of imperialism and the many crises which it creates in the world they are inheriting. They are beginning to say “No!” to much of it. And to the extent that the church doesn’t break free from centuries of alliance with empire, they also are saying no to the church.
It’s time for us to revitalize our Gospel message in ways that recover the revolutionary values and practices of Jesus. It’s time to say “Yes!” to the concerns of our children and grandchildren by saying yes to a revitalized Gospel message.
Join us on Sunday mornings (both in worship and Bible Study) as we learn to more fully recognize and celebrate the joyful reality of God’s reign come to earth in Jesus the Messiah.
Grace and Peace, Pastor Paul