Proper 8 (June 26-July 2)
Texts: Mark 5:21-43;
2 Cor 8:7-15; Lam 3:22-23
RENEWING OUR MESSAGE OF SALVATION
As your guest preacher this morning, I’d like to try something a bit different. I’d like to step back to look at the big picture. We are hopefully coming out of a pandemic, and churches are trying to assess moving forward. The trend across the church, over the last decade especially, has been a steady loss of participation and members. 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 for 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 some of the format of worship — if we do more updated music and use technology in worship, will young people come back?, we ask — but I fervently believe it’s something more basic than that. Young people look at a world with growing crises and problems and our message of salvation has mostly been about the afterlife. It misses the mark on their fundamental concerns.
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? Let me be clear: I think that Jesus defeat of death on Easter morning is a significant part of salvation. What I’m suggesting today isn’t about taking away hope for life after we die. It’s still an important part of the salvation Jesus brings us. 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. In fact, over the centuries an aspect of that message has become counter to the Gospel. The corollary of people going to heaven when they die has been eternal damnation in hell. The eternal separation part of that old message — heaven and hell, saved and damned — I propose to you is the opposite of the Gospel. Which is that God is working to reconcile the whole creation. As we said in the Psalm just a moment ago, “God’s wrath is short; God’s favor, God’s love, lasts a lifetime” (Psalm 30:5). God created this world in love and declared it very good. God is not about to give up on that creation — or on any child, any creature, any person that God has made. We are created in the image of God to be able to love and care for the creation as God does.
But we have fallen into a way of being human that gets in the way. So here’s the key piece of the salvation which Jesus came to bring: that we human beings get back on track with our calling to care for one another, for our fellow creatures, and for our earth home. Jesus is the love of God in the flesh so that we can see how to be truly human. Salvation is about nothing less than a new way of being human that leaves the old divisive ways behind, a way that I believe will hit the mark with young people.
As we hope to come out of the year-long nightmare of this pandemic, think of what the human family faces together. The pandemic has been the opportunity to realize how interconnected we all are. That the only way to beat something like this to work together. And yet our fallen way of being human has seemingly accentuated our differences and divisions. Right? We can’t even talk about basic hygiene during a pandemic, like wearing a mask, without a political divide.
Several weeks ago, Jesus’s first parable was about how Satan casting out Satan names how the human household is forever divided against itself. Human politics seem to always be about being over against other communities and families of human beings. Jesus came to save us from that way of being human defined by divisions so that we might finally come together as a human family and fulfill our vocation as caretakers and stewards with God.
Here’s another important factor. As I’ve been becoming more convinced that our main message of salvation is lacking, this generation of Bible scholars has been corroborating that view. In short, what I’m proposing to you today is also the central message of the New Testament. You can see it everywhere when you ‘put those glasses on,’ so to speak. Each and every week we can engage our Sunday readings and find this message of salvation about God offering us a new way to be human.
Before I take a brief look at today’s Gospel, let me take just a few minutes to recap where we’ve been recently. During the Easter season, we were reading both the Gospel and letter of John, where one of the themes is being born again from above. I take this to mean that if we see ourselves as born from God, who is the creator and ‘parent’ of every person on earth, then we must learn to see the world in those terms. Every single person is a brother or sister. And we are called to live as interconnected like a vine and branches, with the incredible love we see between Jesus and his heavenly Father, a love that lays down its life for friends.
Since Easter, we have been reading through Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, and two weeks ago we read this stirring passage, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation (a new way of being human!): everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Do you remember? But the next couple verses are just as important. In fact, they tell us exactly what Christ is making new: “All this is from God,” writes Paul, “who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us (wait for it!) the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ. . . .” (2 Cor 5:17-20) Apparently, there’s a political role for us. Ministry of reconciliation. Ambassadors for Christ. Do you see? Christ is leading us into a new way of being human that means to reconcile all our divisions.
Next month, we will begin reading Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and he will say this even more clearly. Human beings seem forever to be divided in countless ways of being Us-vs-Them. In Paul’s reality, it was Jew vs Gentile, circumcised vs uncircumcised. But here’s how Paul describes the salvation which Jesus came to bring:
For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances [the law is mixed up in this divisiveness], that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile [there’s that word again!] both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Eph 2:14-16)
“. . . that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two.” All those ways in which we play the games of Us vs Them are being undone in Jesus Christ. For believers in Christ, there are no longer Us and Them, only Us. No longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, says Paul Galatians 3(:28). What other pairs could we add: Black or white? Straight or gay? Democrat or Republican? Catholic or Protestant? Christian or Muslim? Professional or working class? All these divisions expose how we are trapped in a human way of thinking that Christ and the Spirit are helping us to leave behind. God is creating one new humanity in place of all the twos.
We might add rich or poor, powerful or powerless, in light of today’s Gospel Reading. This section of Mark’s Gospel begins with the parable about Satan’s kingdom, that his reign is marked by constantly expelling others so that it is a kingdom divided against itself. (Do you recognize that agenda, of fingering the ‘bad guys’ and seeking to oust them?) This is a parable precisely about our fallen way of being human. We think we are right to expel those we think to be outsiders. We’re the good guys doing away with the bad guys. But if we come to see the world of human beings as all God’s family, then that can’t be right. We are really just Satan casting out Satan and being a human family perpetually divided against itself. So Jesus follows up with parables about God’s kingdom coming into the world in small ways, as small seeds growing into a new home for humanity, beginning to reconcile our differences. So Jesus begins to then act it out. Over this section of Mark’s Gospel that we’re now in, Jesus begins to cross back and forth between Jewish and Gentile territories, healing and ministering to both peoples in the same way. He’s crossing boundaries and reconciling differences.
Which brings us to today. Jesus is back in Jewish territory, but Mark uses one of his favorite story-telling techniques, that of sandwiching one story within another, to bring us a little girl who’s father is rich and powerful and a woman who’s illness has cost her everything she has. He’s crossing the political divide between the rich and powerful and the poor and powerless. In letting himself be touched by a woman who’s been bleeding for twelve years, Jesus is also crossing the critical boundary between pure and impure, clean and unclean, a boundary that let people of Jesus’s time have an excuse to neglect the poor. In bringing healing equally to both these “daughters,” Jesus lives out the new way of being human that brings reconciliation to our divisions. This woman is penniless, impure, and desperate, but Jesus treats her as a child of God no less than the rich man’s daughter. “Daughter,” he says to the woman, “your faith has made you well.” Jesus takes up healing — health care, if you will — as something essential to all God’s children. So we might ask ourselves: what does our health care look like if we follow Jesus’s lead in being human in a new way that heals our normal divisions, like that of rich and poor, and treats all daughters, all sons, as equal members of the human family?
Yes, this means politics. But not politics as usual, and that’s the point. If we are being called to live into a new way of being human, then that means a new way of reconciling our political differences. Politics as usual means assuming that certain divides can’t be crossed, that there’s some irreconcilable differences, such that we must simply defeat our opponents and gain power over them. Does that sound familiar? But the new politics of God’s kingdom that Jesus is bringing us holds to persist in crossing boundaries and working to reconcile all differences. It may start out small — like a mustard seed sown in a field, or yeast in a loaf of bread, or salt in the food, or a small light in the darkness — but aren’t we called to have faith? Faith like the woman in today’s Gospel who initiated the crossing of boundaries, risking that she might simply have been beaten back and beaten down?
As our children and grandchild face considerable crises as we emerge from this pandemic, do you think they might be searching for such a new way to move forward? A way that risks crossing old boundaries and seeks to work together to address the huge challenges facing the human family? More importantly, as disciples of Jesus, isn’t that what Jesus has been calling us to do all along? Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Trinity Lutheran Church,
South Milwaukee, WI
June 26-27, 2021
Video version: https://youtu.be/J1TQH8hLmYM?t=1360