Video version: https://youtu.be/xxYVeHE1zS8?t=1014
Narrative Lectionary Year 4 Week 7
Texts: Matthew 25:31-46;
1 Sam 16:1-13; Eph 2:14-15
GOD’S PLAN AND POLITICS FOR PEACE
Last week I ended by addressing the so-called ‘elephant in the room.’ When we look around us this morning, we especially notice that our children’s and grandchildren’s generations are mostly missing. Why have they left church? This morning I begin with the ‘elephant in the room,’ so that we can keep our children and grandchildren in our hearts and minds as we mull over some important questions and challenges.
There’s no doubt many different answers to the question about why the younger generations are missing, but I have become increasingly convinced in recent years that a main reason has to do with our message. Our basic Christian message is missing the mark with them, so we are missing them. We are missing our children and grandchildren being with us to carry forward the church’s mission. Who will take our place?
Mission and message go together. They need to be well integrated in order for us to know what God calls us to do in our time and place. Last week, I suggested that our mission has gotten a bit out of synch message. We’ve been revitalizing our mission by addressing the needs of our neighbors, especially along the lines of today’s Gospel Reading in Matthew 25. In short, we are revitalizing our mission by trying to better attend to the needs of the least of Jesus’s family, described in this passage as the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, and the immigrant stranger.
But has our message kept up with our mission? Have we revitalized the one and not so much the other? I proposed that we Lutherans might even need to move off of our old Lutheran standby of the Gospel as articulated by “justification by grace through faith.” That was important for Martin Luther in what God was calling him to do in his time and place. The church had gotten off-track in expressing its mission in a gracious way, and he tried to get it back on-track with grace. But five hundred years later, does that same articulation of the Gospel work for us with what God is calling us to do in this time and place? I’m asking us to consider the missing generation this morning. Can our children’s and grandchildren’s generations help us to understand how we need to revitalize our message along with our mission?
Last week, I told a story from Christian author Brian McLaren about how lunch with a theologian friend challenged his understanding of the basic Gospel message. This theologian pointed out how Protestants have shifted focus away from Jesus’s articulation of the Gospel to a particular version St. Paul’s articulation of the Gospel. Jesus proclaimed the Gospel mostly simply as, The kingdom of God is at hand.1 Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther shifted to St. Paul’s language of “justification by grace through faith” in order to urge the church to get back on-track with grace.
But I think we’ve ultimately paid a price in moving away from Jesus’s articulation of the Gospel as, The kingdom of God is at hand. Over the last twenty years or so, the best of New Testament scholarship has been trying to show us how this shift has put things off-center for us. When we take Jesus’s version of the Gospel, for example, we come to see that Paul’s language of “justification by grace through faith” is not even central for him. It was a language that Paul used in a specific argument he had with false teachers in the early church. These teachers were getting away from the basic starting point of grace, so Paul used “justification” language to urge them back on-center with grace. It was natural, then, for Luther to seize on that part of Paul’s language to make a similar argument in his time.2
But when we begin with Jesus proclaiming, The kingdom of God is at hand, we can better see that Paul, too, saw the Gospel as God’s reign coming into the world through Jesus Christ. Paul used amazing language of New Creation, that, in Jesus, God is saving his whole good creation from the corruption of the powers of sin and death. It’s not just about saving some people for the afterlife, for going to heaven when we die. No, we are promised to be held in God’s power of life when we die, but even this is only on the way to something else. There’s a well-known New Testament scholar today who says it’s not about life after death, but about ‘life after life after death.3 It’s on the way to a Day of Resurrection, when what Jesus experienced on Easter will happen to all of us. We will all have resurrection bodies that help us to enjoy God’s good creation finally coming to complete fulfillment, complete harmony, when death will be no more. That’s the goal: not just a few souls in heaven, but a totally renewed creation.
In the meantime — and this is huge — God has already launched this project of renewing creation on the first Easter, when God raised Jesus. The reign of God is not just at hand. It now has come into the world! And God is calling us followers of Jesus Christ to become faithful participants in the project of New Creation. God needs us to be the creatures God made us to be. God needs us to finally care for the creation in ways that help bring it to its completed harmony. In order to do that, God sent Jesus to not only show us how to be truly human, but to begin to empower us with the Holy Spirit so that we might begin to live into that new way of being human. Paul talks about this over and over and over again with things like “life in the Spirit,” as opposed to “life in the flesh.” A new way to be human! Beginning here and now! We can begin to live into new life today, and not have to wait until after we die.
So last week I proposed to you that we might find a better articulation of the Gospel from St. Paul in Ephesians 2:14-15: “For Christ is our peace . . . in Christ, God is creating one new humanity in place of the two.” In other words, in order for God to guide the whole creation into a completed harmony, God first has to help human beings fulfill their created destiny by living into harmony. God needs to bring the broken human family back together. God is creating one new humanity in place of the two. God is taking all the ways in which we are divided and beginning to heal them, to reconcile them.
We are called to a “ministry of reconciliation.” In 2 Corinthians 5 (vv. 17-20), Paul proclaims, “If you’re in Christ, New Creation! All things are becoming new!” And he follows that up with the call to the ministry of reconciliation. God in Jesus Christ is reconciling all people, all things, the whole world unto God’s self.
What is God’s plan to bringing full harmony to the Creation? That, my friends, is the trillion dollar question. Here is where Jesus as the model of new humanity becomes so essential. Because there has been an age-old way of getting this question wrong which plays right into Satan’s hands, leading us away from who God truly is. We only fully see who God is through Jesus. The mistaken way to see God, the sinful way, is to see God as the pinnacle of our own kings and emperors. And how do our human kings and emperors try to bring harmony? By imposing it, using force when necessary. The way to bring harmony is to force everyone to do things the same way, the emperor’s way. So he uses armies and police forces to impose his law — which, until recent secular societies, was presented as God’s law. God chooses the kings and emperors to impose God’s law, through forceful, authoritarian rule of law. That has been the favorite human way of bringing harmony. By trying to force it. It’s all about the power to force others to do things your way. (Sound familiar?4)
Today’s First Reading from 1 Samuel 16 gives us a snippet of this very issue which we can interpret very, very badly — with tragically deadly results — if we don’t let Jesus the Messiah be our guide in understanding God’s reign, God’s way of bringing harmony. You will remember from last week that God is about to do a new thing with the people of Israel. Several hundred years before this time of Samuel, God had freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, where the Pharaoh had used the typical human way of trying to impose harmony — at the cost of treating an entire class of people as slaves. God, through the leadership of Moses, leads them out of Egypt, they wander in the wilderness for forty years receiving God’s law, and then Joshua leads them into the Promised Land. But that’s still hundreds of years before God relents and gives them a king like all the other nations. Here, with Samuel, God finally gives them Saul as king . . . and, oops!, God apparently changes God’s mind, telling Samuel to instead anoint David as king.
But, here, brothers and sisters, is where we desperately need Jesus the Messiah, the Anointed One, to show us God’s way of bringing harmony. We need to be able to see the big picture of Israel’s story through the lens of Jesus the Messiah. Because even Samuel gets it colossally wrong here. The Book of Samuel tells us that God became displeased with Saul because he didn’t follow orders completely, when commanded to completely wipe out an enemy (see 1 Samuel 15). In other words, Saul wasn’t displaying the pinnacle of kingly power of harmony-through-force. So, God supposedly says to Samuel, ‘Choose David instead. Maybe he’ll follow orders.’ David, then, is a typically human king, too, using force when necessary to build a kingdom.
What I’m suggesting is that even God’s people continue to get things wrong throughout history. (And that even gets misrepresented in the Bible stories themselves unless we read the entirety of the Bible in terms of Jesus — like Jesus himself does on the road to Emmaus [Luke 24:27].) Samuel thought he was doing God’s will in anointing first Saul and then David. But it wasn’t until after Samuel that God began raising up prophets like Nathan and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos — prophets who presented the people, especially the kings, with God’s true way of bringing harmony: the Way of caring for the least in the human family, in order to make sure that everyone is properly cared for. For prophets like Isaiah and Amos, it was about telling Israel’s kings to care for the poor, the widow and the orphan, the blind and the lame, and the immigrant and the prisoner.5
We see all this come to a climax in Jesus of Nazareth, God’s true Anointed One, a descendent of David. He has a ministry of caring for the least, the last, and the lost. He teaches his disciples to do the same, even though they are caught up in the sinful human way of bringing harmony by imposing it. There’s a wonderful story in Mark 10 [see Proper 24B], where James and John ask Jesus if they can sit on his right and left hand when he comes into glory. They are imagining the glory of human kings who achieve peace by domination. They’re thinking in terms of a Messiah who simply turns the table on the Romans, dominating them instead. Jesus says, ‘You will undergo what I do, but you don’t know what you’re asking for.’ Because he will of course achieve his ‘glory’ by letting the emperor execute him on the cross. And he teaches them straight out:
“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)
Here, we see contrasted the two ways of trying to bring harmony and peace: the human way of imposing one’s will through forceful domination; and God’s way of loving service. In Jesus, we come to know God as Love — not as the power of force but as the power that comes through serving the creation and its creatures, especially the most vulnerable. As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, ‘I’m not free until everyone is free. I don’t have enough until everyone has enough. I don’t live in peace until everyone lives in peace.’ So what did Dr. King do? He started a Poor People’s Campaign. He preached a politics of God’s reign coming into the world as caring for the least of God’s family.6
That brings us to today’s Gospel Reading, what I consider the blueprint for God’s reign, the greatest articulation of God’s way for bringing final harmony and peace to the whole Creation. God’s way to peace is through prioritizing care for the least in the human family. Now, unfortunately, we’ve run out of time today to do justice to this incredible passage, this blueprint of God’s plan and politics for bringing peace. But I’m here at Reformation again one more week next Sunday, and so we’ll pick-up this theme.
I’d like to ask you to do two things this week, until we reconvene. First, take this Gospel Reading home with you and meditate on it. You can read other translations, too, but I’d like you to also have my translation. Other translations don’t make clear what Jesus himself makes clear — that this passage is about a judgment on the nations in real time, not on individuals in the afterlife — so my translation tightens up the clarity regarding the Son of Man judging the nations. I take the main message to be that if nations don’t enact a politics of taking care of the least, then they end up on the trash heap of history, eventually. It’s a politics that’s very different — upside-down, really — from our typical human politics. And the second thing I want you to do this week is to keep in your hearts and minds our children’s and grandchildren’s generations — why they’re not here. Are they looking for a new, very different kind of politics, one that makes a difference in their lives right now? A politics of trying to heal the brokenness so that we can come together and care for this creation? Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Reformation Lutheran Church,
Brookfield, WI, October 24, 2021
Video version: https://youtu.be/xxYVeHE1zS8?t=1014
2. The game-changing study on “justification” language in Paul is Douglas Campbell‘s The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Eerdmans, 2009).
3. The game-changing study on the biblical view of resurrection is N.T. Wright‘s scholarly The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003). Several years later he published the findings of this work for a wider audience in Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008), where he coined the term “life after life after death.”
4. The rise in authoritarian rule has been on the uptick all around the globe. In our country, the Republican Party has been moving steadily toward authoritarian rule because it has a sense that its politics of white-centered power will never appeal to the growing numbers of people of color. The demographics are against it, so it has slowly but increasingly resorted to tactics of minority, authoritarian rule (like voter suppression and court-stacking). Under Donald Trump’s leadership, the trend has become a definitive move toward a white supremacist fascist takeover, a looming threat to our democracy. For an insider’s look at the GOP, see life-long (until recently) Republican strategist Stuart Stevens‘ book It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump (Knopf, 2020).
5. There are numerous examples of Jesus referencing this element of the Hebrew prophets’ message, but the best example is in Luke 4:16-21, where he reads from the prophet Isaiah — “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” — sits down, and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, in Jesus we come to know with fullness and clarity that God’s plan and politics for peace is to prioritize care for the least in God’s family — fulfillment of that strand of the message of the Hebrew prophets.
6. In our time and place, Dr. King’s work is being taken up by Rev. William J. Barber II. See his book The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement Is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear and the webpage for the movement Poor People’s Campaign – A National Call for Moral Revival (poorpeoplescampaign.org).