Epiphany 7A Sermon (Autumn 2011)

The Lord’s Prayer 2
Texts: Matthew 5:38-48;
Daniel 7:1-14

YOUR KINGDOM COME

Children’s Sermon

Objects: 3-D poster, 3-D glasses from the movie theater, and 8.5 x 14 sign of “Love Your Enemies.” Theme: How 3-D makes things look different, like Jesus’ message. Think of the bully at school. How is it possible to look at them in a loving way? Is there a pair of glasses one can put on for that? We pray that God’s Spirit, promised to us at baptism, can help us to love others, even our enemies.

Sermon

If only it was as easy as putting on a special pair of glasses [putting on the 3-D glasses] to be able to see the kingdom of God coming into our world. Turn the other cheek? Love your enemies? If that’s what the kingdom of God looks like, then where has it been these two thousand years since Jesus? Where has it been under an avalanche of human history filled with violence and hatred, much of it perpetrated by Christians and done in Christ’s name? There isn’t a special pair of glasses, of course. [Take off glasses] But there is a special way of seeing the world. There are eyes of faith that can help us to see the world differently.

But if so much hatred and violence has been done in Christ’s name, what happened to those eyes of faith that they aren’t working like they are supposed to?

Last week in our Sunday class we began with this question: What does it mean to you that God saves you? Saves you from what? From who? What is the first thing that comes to mind? Christianity in recent centuries has taught us to answer that in terms of our own personal salvation. God in Jesus Christ saved us from the condemnation of sin so that the eternal fate of our souls is in heaven instead of hell. When we are ‘saved’ before we die, we see that in personal terms, too, like God saving us from addiction. God saves us from the consequences of the sinful decisions we’ve made. The eyes of faith have taught us to see in terms of one dimension, namely, the dimension of personal salvation.

But instead of asking one of us, a middle class North American in the 20th century, what if we asked a 1st century Jew in Palestine what being saved by God means? Would we get the same answer? The amazing thing is that in recent years we’ve begun to understand more clearly just how different the answer would be – how different the answer is when we read the New Testament from the perspective of a 1st century Jew.

This morning we read Daniel 7 from that perspective. Daniel is the last book written by the Hebrews, written two to three hundred years after the rest of the Old Testament books had been collected. As the last book written, it seemed to have an importance in the 1st century that went beyond how we experience those writings today. The big clue that the book of Daniel was of supreme importance to 1st century Jews is that phrase “Son of Man” in Daniel 7:13 – “I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven.” Jesus uses the same phrase when referring to himself in the Gospels, but it is most commonly translated as “Son of Man.” Just how important was it? Jesus refers to himself as “Son of Man” 13 times in John, 14 in Mark, 26 in Luke-Acts, and 30 in Matthew. Clearly, Daniel 7 was of immense importance to Jesus. And we are learning as we unearth many other writings from 1st century Jews that Jesus wasn’t alone.

This passage was vitally important to 1st century Jews because it prophesies about God’s salvation not as a personal salvation after death; but rather as a collective, more cosmic salvation. Salvation means that God’s humane and just politics will finally prevail someday. The beasts represent the kingdoms of this world – the empires that for centuries trampled on God’s people in dehumanizing ways. The promise of Daniel 7 is that God would finally send a Human One, a Son of Man, to rule in ways that humanize rather than dehumanize; a champion who will rule with God’s justice. Jesus saw himself as that person, the Son of Man who came to save God’s people from the oppression of imperialistic politics.

We seem to have lost that dimension of the eyes of faith – that Jesus was coming to save all people from injustice here on earth. We’ve lost the socio-political dimension of God saving all people in history. So when we pray, “Your kingdom come,” we’ve lost that obvious socio-political dimension of the word kingdom. Our vision has become one dimensional, focused solely on personal salvation after death.

How did we get here? The Christian faith began as an anti-imperialistic faith, one that had a second dimension added to the first dimension, namely, the socio-political dimension. The early centuries of the Christian faith firmly believed that God’s coming kingdom would come and save us from the dehumanizing imperialistic politics that oppressed and enslaved. But in the fourth century the Roman Empire co-opted Christianity, and the early church, and made it the imperial religion. A new strategy for reading scripture, one that refocused on personal salvation, needed to be adopted if the Gospel was to also be for imperial oppressors without requiring them to change their ways.

And here’s another crucial thing to see: the Roman Empire was able to quite easily shift the focus onto the personal dimension of faith in the New Testament because that dimension was clearly there – it didn’t take much convincing. For example, in the midst of dying, Jesus promised the thief on the cross next to him that he would be with him in paradise. Just that one person. Just that one moment. Jesus was dying for all of our sins, but at that moment he promised the penitent thief a place with God in Paradise. The 1st century Jews had become too focused on the socio-political dimension of faith, and Jesus came to challenge that as well. Contrary to what the Hebrews believed, socio-political salvation did not mean using the same dehumanizing means of military might that empires used, only with the tables turned and Jesus leading the slaughter. You can’t love your enemies by destroying them.

So here’s the thing: Jesus came with a three-dimensional message: first, that God can save this world from violence and oppression. Second, that God has a place for us all in the coming kingdom. And third, Jesus added the spiritual dimension of love – a love that reaches out even to enemies because it is the love a father has for his children. When Jesus teaches us to pray “Our Father,” the “our” points to all the children of one Creator God. It is a spiritual third dimension that takes us beyond a humanity that remains mired in drawing lines of hatred.

I think recent generations of Christians have become too one-dimensional in terms of personal salvation. But even though we’ve been discovering the second dimension of socio-political eyes of faith as more prominent at the time of Jesus, we don’t just swap them out like the Western church did. Nor do we simply combine them. I believe that Jesus came to help us see the coming of God’s kingdom in three dimensions. And it’s that third dimension, the spiritual dimension, which makes the true difference. It’s that dimension that makes us most human, as creatures made in God’s image. God is Spirit, and we are made to be spiritual.

Ands it’s this third dimension that’s been missing the longest from practices of the church. We are just beginning to rediscover some of these spiritual practices that were all but abandoned and replaced with rules and catechisms telling us what to believe and how to live.

In our Tuesday night class, we are reading Richard Rohr‘s book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, from which I take this quote by the Dalai Lama:

“Learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly.” (Repeat)

Rohr describes the first half of life as growing secure in a ‘container’ of rules and cultural norms that help define us and give us a sense of belonging. But the second half of life should be about growing past that container into a deeper but less defined experience of being held in God’s love. We hopefully learn well and obey the rules in the first half of life, but in the second we grow spiritually into breaking the rules properly, that is, in God’s love. Do you see how Jesus is teaching us that in Matthew 5? Over and over again, he spells out a rule – “you’ve heard it said, love your neighbor.” But he goes on to tell us how to break that rule in the direction of love – “but I tell you, love your enemy.”

If we are to put on 3-D glasses for eyes of faith [putting on 3-D glasses one more time], we need to go far beyond the last five hundred years of Protestant-Catholic faith. We are going to need to learn the ways of the mystics, the way of the spiritual dimension of seeing everything in love, the way of living one’s entire life in the power of God’s unconditional love for the world. That’s the deepest meaning of praying together to see the coming of God’s kingdom. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your kingdom come…” Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, September 25, 2011

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