All Saints Sunday
Texts: Luke 6:20-31;
Eph 1:8b-12, 17-23; Dan 7:1-3, 13-18
THE GOSPEL AS SUBVERTING THE POWER OF EMPIRE
This is my one-year anniversary of beginning here at Bethlehem, first as your Bridge Pastor and now as your called pastor. Here’s how I started my sermon last year on All Saints Sunday:
While I’m here, there will be an underlying issue that I’ll address in all my preaching and teaching. In the background to everything I do will be the sadness we feel most weeks when we look around us on Sunday mornings. Mostly missing from our congregations are our children’s and grandchildren’s generations. There’s the pain of simply missing them, of not sharing with them something so important in our lives. But there’s also the existential question of, ‘Who will come after us?’
My passion as a preacher these days is to work toward possible answers. There are no doubt a number of factors in the dramatic drop-off of the younger generations from church. Some of them are largely out of our control, like global secularizing trends in human societies. But I firmly believe that there is a crucial factor which is very much in our control: we need a revitalization of our basic Gospel message.
So each week while I’m with you I will gradually unpack an element of a revitalized Gospel message. This week I begin with my strong conviction that our message has been far too focused on the afterlife, on going to heaven when we die. Here’s the thing for our children’s and grandchildren’s generations: they assume the part of our message about life-after-death; but then they ask us:
‘How is the afterlife relevant to my life right now? This world is such a mess, isn’t it? When you’re feeling overwhelmed by the many crises currently facing you, why hang around with folks at church who talk so much about what comes after this life? Don’t you want help us for what’s on our plate right now?’
But, and here’s the big question I’d like us to consider in the weeks ahead: what if the central part of our Gospel message is really about this life, in the first place? Namely, that God on Easter began a project of New Creation by raising Jesus from the dead? And what if God needs us right now (!) to join in that project? Precisely in ways that address the many crises that our children and grandchildren face? In other words, what if a revitalization of the Gospel message for the coming of God’s reign into this world through Jesus is not only more relevant but also more faithful? Would our children and grandchildren be more motivated to join us at church?
So, did I keep my promise to address this issue in a different way each week? On this All Saints Sunday, I’ve been here as your pastor to continue the Good News of God’s ultimate defeat of death, especially as we remember those who have gone before us — four of our dear members in this past year: [names withheld]. We don’t let go of the comfort of the promise of the afterlife. I’m here, though, too, for the sake of our saints’ descendants — focused, in other words, on the generations who come after us, so that we might experience the Gospel anew in ways that speak to them. They, and we, live in a world beset by many crises. How does the promise of God’s reign coming into the world through Jesus inspire us to participate in God’s project of saving God’s good creation?
We have a very important election this Tuesday. In light of a revitalized Gospel we are compelled to ask: How does the coming of God’s reign coming into this world inform those important decisions?
Each and every week, then, we learn to read the assigned readings not primarily for a message about the afterlife — primarily because the Bible isn’t really about the afterlife. Yes, Jesus’ resurrection does carry the comfort of life after death. But for the first apostles, and for Jesus himself, the Scriptures are about something much more: God sending Jesus to launch a project of New Creation. It’s a project of saving the whole world by calling us human beings to participate in God’s way of reigning in this world through Jesus. We are saints by virtue of our participation in that coming reign.
This week is no different in terms of reading the scriptures for that message and mission. The Jesus we meet in Luke’s Gospel is most direct about the Good News for the poor. The Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel give us, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” In Luke’s Gospel, it’s simply, “Blessed are the poor.” And Luke’s Jesus also balances that with not so good news for the rich. Lifting up the poor means bringing down the rich. This isn’t about a reversal, some sort of revenge of the poor on the rich. It’s about all of God’s children living as a family in which everyone has truly equal opportunity. So, rather than a reversal, it’s about a leveling of the playing field. Jesus subverts the way that empires treat the poor and marginalized. So living in a democracy, we are free to ask of our candidates, how do your policies and economics help to shrink the gap between the rich and the poor? Can we advocate for economic policies that work against the huge increase in that gap which we’ve seen in recent decades?
And today’s readings are even more dramatic in showing us the radically different power represented in God’s reign. Human kingdoms and governments have believed in the power of using force to make everyone bend to the will of those at the top. The vast majority of human governments have been what we today call authoritarian. God’s reign, by contrast, believes in the abiding power of love, the power by which God has created everything in the first place. In our reading from Daniel 7, typical human governance is symbolized by the four beasts who arise out the sea. These ferocious beasts represent the grotesqueness of the power of violent human empires whose emperors make everyone bend to their will. (Nietzsche’s “Will to Power.”) In contrast is one simply like a human being, bearing no weapons — apparently defenseless against these monsters. Yet God gives him an eternal reign which transcends these beastly human reigns.
And there’s a crucial element that isn’t obvious in this morning’s translation of Daniel 7:13 (NRSV). The words translated as “human being” are actually the phrase that Jesus used for himself in the Gospels, usually translated there as the “Son of Man.” Most pertinent is what Jesus says when standing on trial before the Jewish Council: “I tell you,” he says, “From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt 26:64). Jesus not only uses the “Son of Man” phrase from Daniel 7:13 but also the image of coming on the “clouds of heaven.” Clearly, Jesus is identifying himself with this Son of Man in Daniel 7 who brings the power of being human in the way God created us to be, the power of lovingly caring for one another and for the earth. It is his reign that will stand in the end, when all the “holy ones” will also live in his power of love. Above all, Jesus subverts the kind of power ‘worshiped’ in empires.
Again, looking to Tuesday, which candidates seem to be advocating a return to authoritarianism? Candidates who are advocating, our turning a blind eye, to political violence? On the other hand, are there candidates speaking out strongly against the threat of political violence? Candidates standing for our country’s grand experiment with democracy as a decisive move away from authoritarianism?
We can also take a quick look at the reading Ephesians. Paul proclaims that Jesus the Messiah has revealed to us the mystery of God’s plan from the very beginning: namely, “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” This has also been a main theme of my preaching this year: that a central part of God’s project of New Creation is to unite all things. For human beings, this means bringing us together across all our lines of division. It means healing and reconciling all the ways in which we’re polarized into Us-vs-Them. Christ’s power to this is a central theme of his reign which transcends all the rulers and powers which seek to divide us and thus subverts the polarizing power of empire. Are there candidates this Tuesday whose campaign seems to center on dividing us further? Are there candidates who seek bringing us together? Shouldn’t our choices in leaders reflect what Christ reveals to us about God’s reign?
Finally, the latter half of today’s Gospel Reading reflects what is most unique about the Gospel message. Almost all human leaders promise some sort of message of uniting us. But for most, it’s on the basis of Us-vs-Them. We are united against Them. Jesus comes to take that away from us. There is no longer Them, because we are commanded to love with a love that even reaches out even to enemies. There is only Us . . . one human family.
And how does that come about? Not through the power of force. Not by some authoritarian leader who decrees it to happen through political violence. No, Jesus teaches us that the main power to rely on when seeking to unite is the power of love. So, rather than forcing unity through violence, we are to resist forces of division through a willingness to suffer the violence . . . through turning the other cheek. We are to do stand for unity and peace through movements of nonviolent resistance like we’ve seen in the last century, beginning with Mahatma Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King, Jr., in our own nation. These movements especially represent subverting the power of Racism, the main power of division of empires over the past 500 years. It is the way of peaceful protest in a free democratic nation like we are blessed to enjoy and celebrate with each and every free and fair election in which we’re privileged to participate.
This Tuesday brings another of those opportunities. I encourage you to exercise your most important responsibility as a citizen. And, on All Saints Sunday, I propose to you that we also vote on Tuesday in light of God’s reign. We vote in light of the fact that we are all the saints, the “holy ones,” who are called to participate in the coming of God’s reign in Jesus Christ. We are called to continue to rely on the power of God’s love to subvert the violent power of authoritarians everywhere. Amen.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, November 6, 2022