Proper 22 (October 2-8)
Texts: Mark 10:2-16;
Gen 2:18-24; Heb 1:1-4; 2:5-12
YouTube version: https://youtu.be/l48jFYsmbw8?t=560
THE GOSPEL OF ONE NEW HUMANITY
When I was here last month, we were reading the Letter of James the Apostle, who urges us disciples to be doers of the word and not hearers only. I praised you for very much being doers of the word here at Emaus, beginning with the homeless shelter in 90’s but then especially all the neighborhood ministry you’ve undertaken that’s resulted in being a twin ministry of both English and Spanish speaking members.
I also began last month to give you a glimpse of what I’ve been up to. When it comes to being doers of the word, my ministry has been a bit more focused on the word part. Not exclusively, of course, because the two go hand-in-hand. But I’ve come to believe very strongly that the younger generation — our children and grandchildren — are missing from church because our message is missing the mark with them. Yes, we are revitalizing our mission with things like vital ministries in our neighborhoods. But I don’t think renewed mission is enough by itself — especially if it still goes along with a message that focuses mostly on the afterlife . . . on what happens to us after we die. It’s what I certainly grew up with, and it’s hard to put behind us. Yes, the promise of the heaven remains an important hope and comfort in the face of death, but I Don’t think it’s the main point of the good news that Jesus came to bring us.
The younger generation, if we’re honest with ourselves, is inheriting a world from us that looks to be a hot mess. Even before a global pandemic, there was a global climate crisis. And here in America our economics largely has not worked for the majority of the people, with our young people among the left out. If they went to college they live with huge student debt, paycheck to paycheck. And if they didn’t go to college, there’s mostly low-wage jobs to work, also living paycheck to paycheck. Add to that intolerance to LGBTQ folks, systemic racism, rising authoritarianism which threatens our democracy, and hopelessly divided politics, and our young people want help now, not just in the afterlife. They’re attracted to someone more like Bernie Sanders, who has a message that can help them in this life.
Brothers and sisters, I’ve come to feel that a renewal of our message means letting go of our most basic Lutheran statement of the Gospel as “justification by grace through faith.” Over the past twenty years or so, New Testament scholars are telling us that justification was more of a side issue for St. Paul — a specialized language he used in debate with some false teachings — and not really his primary way of talking about the Gospel. Moreover, the focus on justification never really synched with Jesus’s own version of the Gospel.
Last time I was here, I introduced you to my friend, pastor and author Brian McLaren. In several of his books he tells this story of being converted about the Gospel itself. He was having lunch with a prominent Evangelical theologian who unsettled his Protestant version of the Gospel, beginning with a rather 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?” And then he asked Brian, “What was the gospel according to Jesus?” A little humiliated, Brian mumbled something like, “You tell me,” to which 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?” (For the complete version of Brian McLaren’s story see A New Kind of Christianity, 137-38.)
Here’s the thing: I think we can still go to Paul for wonderful articulations of the Gospel, but we need to do so through the lens of Jesus and his very clear Gospel of the reign of God coming into this world. That sounds pretty political, I know. But it’s also pretty hear and now, instead of focused on the afterlife. It more poignantly addresses the issues our children and grandchildren are concerned about — something that rings out a Gospel that is more than about the justification of sinners, especially in the individualistic sense in which we’ve tended to read that. The Gospel is more than about individuals going to heaven when they die. It’s about God coming to reign in Creation in ways that begin to free and liberate and make to flourish all of God’s good creation.
Both Jesus and Paul were good Jews. Their scriptures begin with God creating everything, and it was good. God would not give up on the whole creation merely to save a few souls to go to heaven when they die.
We can begin looking in other places in Paul for his version of Jesus’ Gospel: The kingdom of God is at hand. For Paul, of course, the kingdom of God had already arrived. It had been launched on Easter morning when Jesus was raised from the dead. A month ago I highlighted with you some of what we’d read from Paul this summer. In June we read from 2 Corinthians 5 (vs. 17): “So for anyone in Christ: new creation! The old has passed away; the new has arrived!” Then in mid-summer we read again about something new being created because of Easter from Ephesians 2: “For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one . . . that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two” (Eph 2:14-15). And Paul goes on to then use ‘kingdom’ language by calling the Gentiles “citizens” of the commonwealth of Israel, members of God’s household. The Gentiles are no longer immigrants and strangers but citizens and members of the body politic. Since “Gentile” was the Jewish designation for anyone who isn’t a Jew, that means God in Jesus is moving to unite the entire human family. One New Humanity in place of the two. Again, think about how that might resonate with the younger generations in this climate of great division, of not being able to get anything important done because we are so locked into Us vs Them.
If we understand the Gospel to be about God creating one new humanity in place of the two, then that sheds light on today’s Gospel Reading, doesn’t it? Jesus is now going to Jerusalem, his last journey, and he first passes through the place where John had baptized him years before, and then the Spirit had pushed Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Back near that place, Jesus is now tempted by the Pharisees who come to him with legal matters about marriage and divorce. They are tempting him to go off his message about God’s reign and his mission to launch that reign in the cross and resurrection. He tries to stay on track by giving them, not law, but God’s intentions for humanity from the beginning of creation. He tells them that God created us for relationships in which two become one flesh. Two become one flesh. God creating one new humanity in place of the two. Do you see? God created us for oneness. Jesus takes the question about marriage and, instead of getting tempted to stray off-course, he stays laser-focused on God’s reign as coming to heal our brokenness, healing all of our divisions, making our twos into his One.
And how does the reign of God heal the brokenness? The disciples’ denseness provides an occasion for a children’s object lesson. An object lesson not for the children but involving the children: blessing them and placing them in the midst of the adults, not as some sentimental thing, but to help us to understand that the politics of God’s reign always begin with the most vulnerable — those who are usually the first to suffer when things start going wrong.
Again, you’ve been doers of the word here at Emaus, reaching out first, time and time again, to the most vulnerable. Welcoming the children. But let’s have a message that’s tailored to go along with that mission, so that they go together ‘hand-in-hand.’ We need to be able to read scripture in new and exciting ways.
If we read Mark’s Gospel to this point, a key passage is the first “parable” — not the parable of the sower but the crazy piece we read at the beginning of the summer about Satan casting out Satan so that his house is perpetually divided against itself (Mark 3:23-26). In other words, Jesus is saying, ‘That’s exactly what you’re most comfortable with most of the time . . . all these ways in which you’re divided against yourselves.’ We look today at all the polarization and conspiracy theories, and it certainly seems like we’re in the rut of Satan casting out Satan. We think we’re the good guys casting out the bad guys, the godly casting out the satanic, but Jesus is trying to get us to understand that that’s actually satanic. It’s not the good guys casting out the bad guys but Satan casting out Satan, witnessed to by the fact that we’re endlessly divided. We’re more comfortable, as our history seems to demonstrate, with having an enemy that we can hate. We’re more comfortable when we think we can clearly identify the bad folks — while we, of course, are the good folks.
Jesus is trying to move us into a completely different politics. So after the parable of Satan casting out Satan, he’s crossing boundaries all over the place. He’s not only proclaiming the word, but he’s doing it. He’s healing poor people alongside of rich people, men and women, Gentiles as well as Jews. He’s crossing boundaries over and over again, trying to teach his disciples the politics of God’s reign, and they just don’t get it.
I guess it’s a lot like us — after two thousand years, it’s still so hard for us to understand. So what do you think? Can we begin to more clearly focus our Gospel message — a Gospel not so much of justification by grace through faith but of one new humanity in place of two — a Gospel of being called to be ministers of reconciliation, of healing all the brokenness around us — a Gospel of calling people to a politics not centered on the rich and powerful, hoping some of it will trickle down, but a politics that begins with the most vulnerable? Martin Luther King, Jr. Used to say things like, “None of us are free until all of us are free. None of us have enough until all of us have enough.” We must begin with the least. Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel, is telling us all this crazy, inverted stuff: the first will be last and the last will be first. If you really want to be the greatest, then you must serve. You must seek out the most vulnerable; you must attend to them. When we are doing that together, then we are being who we are made to be from the beginning. One new humanity. That’s good news, isn’t it? That’s something I think are young people can join in and say, “Yea, that makes sense. That’s why you’re doing all this good stuff.” We shouldn’t have to rely on Bernie Sanders. Jesus is calling us to be healers in this broken world. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Emaus Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, October 2-3, 2021
YouTube version: https://youtu.be/l48jFYsmbw8?t=560