Narrative Lectionary Year 4 Week 8
Texts: 1 Kings 5:1-5; 8:1-13;
John 2:13-22; Eph 2:14-15
THE GOOD NEWS OF GOD SAVING OUR MESSED-UP WORLD
In my three weeks with you (see also October 17 and October 24), I’ve called our attention to the painful reality of shrinking numbers across the church. As we look around us on any given Sunday, it’s apparent that our children’s and grandchildren’s generations are mostly missing. There’s the pain of simply missing them, of not sharing with them something 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 solutions. There are no doubt a number of factors in the dramatic drop-off of the younger generation 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 Gospel message to go along with revitalization of our mission. We’ve been working on the latter for a couple decades. But I think we’ve lagged behind in working on our message in a coordinated fashion. In the ELCA, I believe a lot of our preaching has been looking at Scripture in fresh ways that resonate with the revitalized mission. But the overall framing of our preaching needs a new center. On this Reformation Sunday 2021, I’m proposing that we need something different than what worked five hundred years ago, namely, “justification by grace through faith.”
Two weeks ago I shared a story from author and teacher Brian McLaren (from A New Kind of Christianity, pp. 137-38). He was having lunch with a theologian thirty years ago, who challenged our Protestant version of the Gospel with Jesus’s clear version that we find in the Gospels, namely, The kingdom of God is at hand. We can go to St. Paul for our Gospel language, but it needs to have Jesus’s dimension of proclaiming God’s reign coming into the world — which, for Paul, had already happened on the first Easter. So there are other places in Paul’s letters that do the job, like Ephesians 2: “For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one. . . . He has abolished the law . . . that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace. . . .” (Eph 2:14-15) God in Jesus Christ is saving us from all the violence and mayhem caused by our endless human divisions. God is empowering nothing less than a new way to be human so that our increasing harmony might participate in the harmony that God has promised to bring to the whole creation. The coming of God’s reign into the world through Jesus intends to save us from ourselves, from the great harm our divisiveness brings to God’s good creation. It is salvation in the here and now that couldn’t be more relevant in any time and age. Do you think our children and grandchildren would have a better chance of signing up for a recentered Gospel very relevant to their lives?
I’d like to share another story from Brian McLaren with you this morning. It’s from his latest book, Faith after Doubt (pp. 132-34), which very much addresses the questions we’re asking this morning. He tells of a recent encounter with a young woman named Charis. He had been presenting to a group on matters of upgrading our faith through revitalized message and mission. (Brian’s version of borrowing from Paul focuses on “faith expressing itself in love” from Gal 5:6.) Charis came up to him after the talk and invited Brian to coffee, where she began, “Look, I’m almost thirty and I’m dating someone and it’s getting pretty serious. And eventually, we want to have children. And I know what I don’t want to teach my hypothetical future children, but I have no idea what I do want to teach them . . . and I guess, more personally, I wish I could find some group of people who have sifted through all the best from the past and use it to help people like me get a little more of that harmony in our lives that you talked about this morning. For all the problems I have with what I was taught growing up, I do feel that having a faith community was worth a lot to me. And I think the world will not be a better place unless we can find a way to have healthy faith communities without all the ______.” (Expletive deleted)
Brian began to respond, “When angsty post-conservatives like you show up with all your questions, these faith communities don’t know what to do with you. . . . They’ve debugged their software of fundamentalist belief systems, but they haven’t installed a love-driven program in its place. They’re like a bicycle that runs on a front wheel of ambiguity and a rear wheel of institutional momentum. Meanwhile, a lot of these faith communities are aging and declining numerically. It’s been a long time since they’ve had experience with younger people. They want you, and they need you, but . . .”
Charis interrupted, “I get it. I get it. They want the ‘millennials’ like me to come and save them. But really, they want us less as members or partners and more as fuel to keep their operation going. So people like me give up on church entirely and join the ‘nones’ (her naming of folks whose church affiliation is ‘none’). . . . Look, I do all the nones stuff. I do yoga. I go to therapy. I do these online self-awareness-unleash-your-inner-goddess courses and stuff like that. But I’m not an idiot. I know about climate change and nuclear war and economic inequality and all that. And the world is in such a mess, I don’t just want to be a good, happy, fulfilled, spiritual consumer while it all goes down the toilet. I want to be part of a group, a movement, that’s trying to . . . you know, save it. There. I said it. I want to be part of a community that isn’t obsessed with saving their own damned souls, but that actually wants to try to save this world that we’re on the verge of destroying.”
Does this sound at all familiar with any of the under-forty folks in your lives? Are they hungering for ways of not just saving souls for the afterlife, but for saving people and God’s good creation here in this life? Something that will help them in the here and now? Well, if we recenter our Gospel message to God’s reign coming into the world on that first Easter, then I think we can have the message to meet there hungering.
It’s been there in Scripture all along if we only reframe our reading of it. Our frame, our lens through which we’ve been reading, has been focused on the afterlife, on going to heaven when we die. This is indeed a comforting part of the Christian message, but one that takes us off-center. The center of the Gospel is God’s reign coming into the world through Jesus in order to redeem the entire creation, beginning with humankind so that we might participate in bringing harmony to all creation. The comfort of the afterlife, then, is one of being on the way to something much grander — namely, someday having a resurrection body like Jesus’s so we can enjoy a fully completed creation brought to harmony and peace. The really Good News, in the meantime, is being called to take part in God’s Easter project of New Creation. When millennials like Charis long to save the creation they’re living in, the Good News is that this is precisely what God is calling us to participate in through Jesus!
When we have this different frame and center for the Good News in Jesus Christ, it gives us a different lens through which to read the Bible. Let me conclude today with two quick examples: one is last week’s Gospel Reading which I asked you to meditate on during the week; and the other is today’s readings about the Temple, that is, the location of God’s presence in the world.
I have last week’s Gospel Reading in the Sermon Notes for today. Matthew 25 is one of the most familiar passages in the Bible, even to ‘nones’ like Charis. With our afterlife lens on, how have we generally read this? As God sorting individuals in the afterlife, right? Folks come before Christ’s throne after they die and are sorted according to whether they were charitable to the least of Jesus’s human family. But we’ve missed a very crucial element in reading it through our ‘afterlife lens,’ so to speak. Jesus himself in verse 32 says that it is about a sorting of nations, not individuals. And in the next chapter, when Jesus is on trial for his life before the Jewish council, he tells them that they will see the Son of Man throned in glory “from now on” (Matt 26:64). In other words, Jesus sees his passion and resurrection as the coming of the Son of Man, not in the afterlife, but into history. So Matthew 25 is not about the sorting of individuals in the afterlife. It’s about the sorting of nations in history right now — that God’s reign has come into the world through Jesus. In short, there’s real time consequences for nations whose politics favor the rich and powerful while neglecting the least powerful — the poor, the sick, the immigrant, and the imprisoned. Those nations which don’t operate on God’s politics as revealed in Jesus are headed for a bad end. They will not in the end succeed. So, once again, it’s not about uncharitable persons being damned to hell in the afterlife. It’s about uncharitable and unjust nations ending up on the trash heap of history — like the Roman Empire or Nazi Germany.
We might even take a hard look at our own nation. Our nation formed with a new, entrenched form of racism that led to arguably the most brutal form of slavery in human history — ripping millions of people from the African continent and often times treating them less humanely than our domesticated animals. Have we already paid a price in history for this sin? What about the Civil War, with 650 soldiers killed and many more thousands of civilians? And have we faced the consequences of this racism yet? Do our politics favor the rich and powerful? Or the least in Jesus’ human family? Will we succeed or end up on the trash heap of history? I think for our children’s and grandchildren’s generations this is truly an open question. And one which we might help them to answer if we reframe and recenter our Gospel message.
Finally, there’s today’s readings about the ancient Temple in Jerusalem from 1 Kings. It was built by Solomon a thousand years before Jesus. It was destroyed by the Romans about thirty years after Jesus. All four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — were written after the Temple was destroyed, so one of the most important things the Gospels convey to us from Jesus is that Jesus had prophesied its destruction well in advance. A prophecy is not a prediction. It wasn’t baked in — a done deal. No, the Temple would be destroyed only if God’s people stayed on their present course of overturning Rome’s politics through violence, instead of practicing God’s politics of lovingly caring for the least and last.
In John’s Gospel we have a further twist on this prophecy. The Temple is to become irrelevant anyway. Jesus has come to replace the Temple as the portal of God’s presence into the world. That’s the meaning behind the strange line about Jesus rebuilding the Temple in three days. He later tells his disciples that he’s talking about his body. In other words, letting his body be destroyed on the cross and raised on the third day is replacing the function of the Temple. The ancient Jews saw their Temple as the doorway of God’s presence into the creation, and as the main abiding place for God’s presence. After Easter, God’s presence was to no longer reside mainly in a building but in a human body.
And on the night of his arrest and trial, Jesus basically tells his disciples that their bodies will then become the abiding place for God’s presence. Recall that well-loved passage from John 14 that we read at funerals. Jesus says, “In my father’s house are many abiding places, and I go to prepare a place for you.” Jesus’s only other time of referring to his father’s house is in today’s Gospel Reading, referring to the Temple in Jerusalem. But we have just noted that Jesus is also saying that he has come to replace the Temple, his father’s house, with his own body. So the abiding places he’s talking about are in his body, so to speak. In the very next chapter, John 15, Jesus further explains this by saying, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. You abide in me, and I abide in you. Abide in my love.’ Do you see what this means? The abiding places he’s going to prepare as his father’s house in this world is US! With our afterlife lens on, we read this passage as being about going to heaven when we die. But reading John 14 with the lens of the wider context of John’s whole Gospel, we see that he is talking about abiding in us. In going to the cross and being raised on Easter, Jesus is going to prepare his disciples for being the abiding place of God’s presence in the world. We are to be the abiding places of God’s love in the world. As such, we are to participate in God’s project of saving the whole creation.
Do you see what I mean, then, about speaking to concerns of young people like Charis? When she says, “the world is in such a mess. . . . I want to be part of a group, a movement, that’s trying to . . . you know, save it”? When we replace our afterlife glasses with New Creation glasses, we can see that this is exactly what the Bible is trying to tell us! God in Jesus Christ is working to save this world, and is calling us to join in! Like Charis, would our children and grandchildren sign-up for that? Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Reformation Lutheran Church,
Brookfield, WI, October 31, 2021