Proper 13 (July 31-Aug 6)
Texts: John 6:24-35;
Exo 16:2-4, 9-15; Eph 4:1-16
“ETERNAL LIFE” FOR THE HERE AND NOW
As your guest preacher this morning, I’d like to begin a bit differently. I’d like to step back for a moment to look at the big picture. We are hopefully coming out of a pandemic — though the Delta Variant is worrisome. Churches are trying to assess moving forward, with an awareness that things weren’t great before COVID-19. The trend across the church, over the last decade especially, has been a steady loss of participation and members. Our numbers are shrinking, and so we’re anxious that the pandemic couldn’t have helped that trend.
And these anxieties about the church’s future usually have a personal element. I had an ELCA member in Racine say to me recently, ‘The most difficult thing is that I can’t get my own son to come to church anymore. Do you have any ideas about why that is? Why are so many of our children and grandchildren leaving the church?’ Take a moment to ask yourself: can you think of a person in your life — a child, a grandchild, a close friend — who’s no longer coming to church?
I do have an idea of how to answer this crucial question. In my 30+ years of being a pastor, I’ve become increasingly convinced that people are leaving the church, especially young people, because our basic message of salvation is missing the mark. We’ve wondered about the music or the format of worship — we ask things like, ‘if we were to do more updated music and use technology in worship, will young people come back?’ But I fervently believe it’s something more basic than that. Young people look at a world with growing crises that threaten our survival, and the church’s message of salvation has mostly been about the afterlife. It misses the mark on their fundamental concerns for this life.
See if this sounds right to you. I grew up with an emphasis on the afterlife at the center of the message of salvation — namely, that we go to heaven when we die through faith in Jesus. Right? Since we just read about Jesus talking about what’s usually translated as “eternal life,” we’ll talk more about this in a few minutes. But what I want to suggest to you today is that it’s only a part of that picture of salvation, and not even the most important part.
Brian McLaren is a Christian author and teacher who writes about these vital questions for the church. In his book A New Kind of Christianity, he asks a basic question about the version of the Gospel that many of us grew up with, and he tells this story of how he began to change his mind. 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 he 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?” When Brian gave him a quizzical look, he asked, “What was the gospel according to Jesus?” A little humiliated, Brian mumbled something like, “You tell me,” and he 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?”
Like many of us raised as good Lutherans, Brian had always assumed that “kingdom of God” meant “kingdom of heaven” — which meant “going to heaven after you die” — which was the basis for a formula for forgiveness of original sin called “justification by grace through faith.” But his lunch mate’s questions unsettled all that in a way that is very 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 — to repent about our version of the gospel and its meaning for the world, especially for our children’s and grandchildren’s sakes. (For the complete version of Brian McLaren’s story see A New Kind of Christianity, 137-38.)
Today’s Gospel Reading gives us an opportunity to begin a change of heart and mind about our basic Christian message because of key phrases like “eternal life” which renowned biblical scholar Tom Wright translates as “life in God’s coming age.” I give a more full explanation in the Sermon Notes that you can take home with you. Here, let me summarize that the key problem is translating the Greek word often rendered in English as “eternal.” Greek philosophy had an idea about the soul living on when you die in an eternal realm of ideas. They believed bodies and creation in general to be corrupt, and so we look forward to leaving them behind when we die. If that sounds familiar, it’s because our Christian message has become too much like that Greek philosophy.
But here’s the crucial thing: it’s decided NOT how Jews and Christians like Jesus and St. Paul thought! Our Jewish-Christian heritage proclaims that the God of Jesus created the world good, not corrupt. It became corrupt along with human sin, but God’s plan has always been to set the corruption right and to bring the good creation to fulfillment and completion. It has never been about giving up on creation and then evacuating righteous Christians to another place called heaven. No, when Jesus says he came to bring “eternal life,” it means he came to launch God’s age of setting things right.
Let me be clear: I’m not taking away our hope for the afterlife. The Easter promise remains intact that God has defeated the powers of death. But the views of heaven and hell which developed over the last 2000 years aren’t what the Bible talks about. What the New Testament talks about is God holding us in God’s power of life when we die . . . until the day of resurrection. On that day we will have resurrection bodies like Jesus on Easter so that we can enjoy God’s good creation fully come to fulfillment. This was all launched that first Easter morning. Jesus has opened the door to life in God’s new age, a time of setting things right. And you and I are called to be part of that!!
Just a couple of other quick clues from our Gospel Reading. When the word “heaven” is used by Jesus, notice that there is nothing about going to heaven. Rather, we have the opposite: Jesus and the bread of heaven have come from heaven to revive our lives in the here and now.
And the other thing we need to notice involves his listeners’ question to Jesus about work, God’s work. “What should we be doing,” they ask him, “so that we can be doing the work God wants?” Jesus replies, “This is the work God wants of you, that you trust in the one he sent.” In the previous chapter, John 5, Jesus has already given his followers more than a clue about God’s work. When he heals a lame man on the Sabbath, he tells them that he is doing God’s work. This comes up again a bit later in John 9 when Jesus heals a man blind from birth. There, he even mimes God’s creation of human beings in Genesis 2, where it tells us that God created human beings from the dirt. Jesus heals the man born blind by taking some dirt, spitting on it, rubbing it on his eyes, and telling him to go wash it off in the pool of Siloam (which means “sent”; John 9:6-7). So what does this all mean? It means what we’ve talked about here: that Jesus came to show us how God is launching a renewal of creation and sending us to be part of it. In John 14 (verse twelve) Jesus tells his disciples that they will do even greater works than he! Because he is going to the Father.
Which brings us to one last phrase from today’s Gospel Reading: “Son of Man.” When Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man” it means Human Being 2.0, a new start on being human. Sin distorted our first start as human beings. We were created by God to join in God’s work of Creation — a work we have failed in. Sin has turned too much of our work to our own selfish purposes. Jesus came to get us back on track with that work of caring for God’s creation and for one another. On Easter morning his resurrection signals nothing less than a new start on Creation, by empowering us through his Spirit to once again do the work we’re created for. In John’s Gospel, Jesus goes away in order to send his spirit of love to dwell in us so that we can do greater work than he. He is the “Son of Man,” a new generation of human beings who once again join God in the Spirit to do the work of bringing God’s good Creation to fulfillment, completion.
What do you think? Is that a message and mission for which our children and grandchildren might get on board? Can we teach ourselves and them to hear something different in the promise of “eternal life”? Instead of hearing just about ‘going to heaven when we die,’ can we hear the Good News of God in Jesus helping us to be human in the way we were meant to be? That God’s Spirit might dwell in us so that we do the work of Creation here and now? As our children and grandchildren are anxious about our earth home becoming unlivable, can we invite them into a mission and message of finally working together to make this home God has given us a better place? Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
St. Mary’s Lutheran Church,
Kenosha, WI, July 31-August 1, 2021