Video version: https://youtu.be/GX5rwBYZzJI?t=893
Narrative Lectionary Year 4 Week 6
Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1-21;
John 20:19-23; Eph 2:14-19
PREACHING THE GOSPEL OF ONE NEW HUMANITY
It’s about a thousand years before Christ, and God is about to do a new thing with his people Israel. The era of kingship is about to begin. They had been freed from slavery in Egypt to wander forty years in the wilderness. Joshua had taken them into the Promised Land, but then God held off on giving them a king. For many years God sent “judges” instead. They are finally about to receive their first king, so God raises up Samuel, the first prophet. Samuel will anoint first Saul and then David as king. (We’ll hear more of that story next week.) It is hard to hear God’s voice in any age; even more so when God is calling us human beings to do a new thing.
About two thousand years after Christ, the people of Resurrection Lutheran Church in Brookfield are being called to join God in doing a new thing. Pastor Cheri has just retired. You will embark on the Mission Exploration process, seeking to call a new pastor. But you also join much of the rest Christ’s church in this time and place in facing a number of crucial issues. Samuel is a model for us in listening to God’s voice, in discerning our call to mission today.
The church at large is wondering what we will look like as we come out from the conditions of surviving a pandemic. Numbers were shrinking before it was necessary to find safe ways of being together that no of us would have ever imagined twenty months ago. It seems unlikely that things will ever be exactly the same as before the pandemic. The question is: should it? Perhaps this is a time when God is calling us to do new things. Like Samuel, how do we learn to listen to God’s voice as we seek to do God’s will in this moment and place?
I believe that our Greater Milwaukee Synod has pioneered a process that helps us listen to God’s voice by listening to the voices of people in our neighborhood — the Mission Exploration Team process (aka the MET process) which you will be undertaking in the coming weeks. Arguably the best process of listening to God’s voice which Jesus left us is the judgment of the nations scene which we can read in Matthew 25 (vv. 31-46). There, Jesus tells the nations being judged that he had come to them through the least of his human family. “I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; thirsty, and you gave me to drink.” Jesus tells them that he came to them through the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, and the immigrant. “Even as you did it (or didn’t do it) to one of the least of my family,” he says, “you did it to me.” So the MET process is largely a way to follow Jesus’ guidance in Matthew 25. When we learn to listen to the needs of the people in our neighborhoods, we are listening to Jesus. We are listening to God.
What is God calling you to do in this time and place? Listen to the voices of the people you live and work with here in Brookfield. What are their needs? Especially the needs of the most vulnerable, the needs of the least of Jesus’ human family. The MET process is truly a gift to discerning God’s mission. I wish you God’s blessings in the weeks and months ahead.
This morning, and in the next couple weeks that I’m here with you (October 24 and October 31), I’d also like to anticipate some possible barriers to hearing God’s voice through the MET process. If I believe that the MET process is a gift and a blessing to our life together as church, I also believe that the message part, the Word part, of our life together hasn’t quite kept up with our revitalized sense of mission. In explaining the MET process to you, for example, I based it on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25. When we speak to others about the essence of the Gospel, the center of our Christian message, do we bring up passages like Matthew 25? Or are we still centered on things like the five-hundred-year-old Lutheran standard of “justification by grace through faith”? Has the revitalization of our mission in this time and place been accompanied by a revitalization of our message? Is it time to ask ourselves: “Justification by grace through faith” was the timely message for Martin Luther five hundred years ago, listening for God’s voice to do a new thing — but is it still the best framing of the message in our time and place? What if, five hundred years later, God is asking us to do a new thing, and so we also need to recenter, reframe, our message?
Brian McLaren, a Christian author and teacher who writes about these vital questions concerning the church’s mission and message, tells a story of how his mind began to change about the Gospel itself. He was having lunch with a prominent Evangelical theologian who unsettled his Protestant version of the Gospel, beginning with a provocative statement: “Most Evangelicals haven’t got the foggiest notion of what the gospel really is.” He then asked Brian how he would define the gospel, and Brian answered with what we Lutherans learned in catechism class: “justification by grace through faith.” To which his lunch guest followed up with this simple but annoying rhetorical question: “You’re quoting Paul. Shouldn’t you let Jesus define the gospel?” And then he asked Brian, “What was the gospel according to Jesus?” A little humiliated, Brian mumbled something like, “You tell me”; and his friend replied, “For Jesus, the gospel was very clear: The kingdom of God is at hand. That’s the gospel according to Jesus. Right?” And here was perhaps the theologian’s most important question of all: “Shouldn’t you read Paul in light of Jesus, instead of reading Jesus in light of Paul?”
I relate to McLaren’s story myself as one similar to my own journey as a pastor these past thirty years. New perspectives on how to read the New Testament have led many of us to “Repent!” — which literally means to have a change of mind and heart — we’ve come to repent about our version of the gospel and its meaning for the world. (For the complete version of Brian McLaren’s story see A New Kind of Christianity, 137-38.)
Don’t get me wrong. I think that justification by grace through faith was a very important message five hundred years ago. The church had gotten off-center with something as basic as grace — we Christians have to begin with grace. So Martin Luther listened to the voice of God in his time and place, like Samuel, asking him to help do a new thing: ‘You have to get my people back on track with the word of grace.’
But five hundred later I think we need to recenter and refocus, with the issues we face in our time and place. And we need to do so with something that comes more directly from Jesus’s sense of the Gospel: The kingdom of God is at hand! Let’s be clear right from the start that when you’re talking about something like the kingdom of God, it sounds like you’re also talking about something like . . . politics. Right? About governance? God’s reign is coming into the world! What does that look like?
Another thing to be clear about right away is that if we now bring Paul into line with Jesus’s message about the kingdom of God, then for Paul God’s reign has already started! It was launched on Easter morning when the crucified Jesus was raised from the dead. God’s reign was coming into the world, and so a new politics, too. Which can be a scary thing. But if we begin with the fact that God’s reign has come into the world through something as strange and shocking as a crucified Messiah, who is raised from the dead, then we can begin to understand that these politics will also be very different. God is calling us to something new.
So I’d like to propose that we begin with a passage we read this summer. [On July 18 there was a convergence of both the Narrative Lectionary and the Revised Common Lectionary in reading Ephesians 2:11-22 — a rare but fortuitous convergence — see my sermon for Proper 11B.] I propose that Paul’s language in Ephesians 2 may be a good way to recenter, reframe, and refocus our proclamation of the Gospel. In verse 8 (which wasn’t read), we read that Lutheran framing of the Gospel: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” In verse 11 (where we did begin to read), Paul says, “So then,” signaling that this is what the Gospel of grace looks like. “Christ is our peace.” That’s what the Gospel looks like. In our Gospel Reading today, we see that the very first words which Jesus says to the disciples on Easter evening, as the kingdom of God is now launched, is, “Peace be with you.”
Paul proclaims the Good News of God’s reign launched into the world as peace! God’s grace in the world looks like peace! And the following articulation of this peace in Ephesians has especially become helpful to me: “God is creating one new humanity in place of the two” (Eph 2:15). Think about that, considering all we see around us in our human politics. There’s terrible divisions everywhere we look, right? Paul is proclaiming that all those ways in which we are divided, all those ways in which we are ‘two,’ God is now making into one. When you center on that, you begin to see so many other places where Paul is proclaiming this oneness. In Galatians 3 Paul says that if you are baptized into Christ, your identity is no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. We are all one in Jesus Christ. All those ways in which we are ‘two’ — today, in our politics, divided into Democrat and Republican; in our gender identity, straight and gay; in our economics, rich and poor — all those ways we find ourselves divided still today, God is working to heal us and to bring us together as one human family. How big is that for our time and place?! If we were to reframe the Gospel as “Christ is our Peace” and recenter it as God making one new humanity in place of the two?!
I’m going to talk more about this in the next two weeks that I’m going to be here [October 24 and October 31]. But I’d like to conclude this morning by noticing what we might call the ‘elephant in the room.’ One of the issues we face in the church with our shrinking numbers is that our children and grandchildren are mostly missing — the youngest generations. We’ve been revitalizing our mission in some important ways, but have we also been revitalizing our message in ways that speaks to them? The “Reconciling in Christ” work which you’ve done in recent years is a piece of that. But if we are still teaching them “justification by grace through faith” as the center of the Gospel, is that good enough for them anymore? What if, to go along with something like the Reconciling in Christ process, the primary articulation of the Gospel was, “God is creating one new humanity in place of the two”? Wouldn’t that make sense? A mission and message unified around God’s politics of oneness? Would our children and grandchildren sign up for that? We’ll talk more about this in the next couple weeks [October 24 and October 31]. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Reformation Lutheran Church,
Brookfield, WI, October 17, 2021
Video version: https://youtu.be/GX5rwBYZzJI?t=893