Proper 20B Sermon (2012)

Proper 20 (Sept 18-24)
Texts: Mark 9:30-37;
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

WHICH JESUS DO WE FOLLOW?

“But who do you say that I am?” That’s the million-dollar question Jesus asked his disciples in last Sunday’s Gospel as we began our Fall theme of “Discipleship 101.” Who do you say that I am? How do we answer that question? If the simplest description of discipleship is to follow Jesus, then answering the question of who Jesus is will make all the difference in the world.

If Jesus is the Son of God in the 20th Century church sense, namely, the loving Son who came to win our way to heaven, then following that Jesus is comforting and reassuring. If, on the other hand, Jesus is the Son of God in the 1st Century sense, when Tiberius Caesar reserved that title for himself, then following Jesus as the Son of God meant rebellion against the Roman Empire and could get you a ticket to a cross with your name on it: calling Jesus Son of God was imperial treason.

Peter gets who Jesus is right: “You are the Messiah,” he says, the Christ. But in the 1st Century, this was even trickier than calling Jesus the Son of God not only because the Romans were quickly coming to understand that the Jewish title Messiah pointed to a liberating king, and saw calling Jesus the Messiah as treason; but it was tricky among the Jewish community as well.

The Jews wanted a Messiah in the human sense, a king that would seize power through wealth and military might. But Jesus was the culmination of what the Old Testament Prophets had been trying to get the Jewish people to understand for centuries: that God’s way to justice and peace is the complete opposite. Instead of seeking power and might, it seeks out the least powerful, and never with violence. Jesus makes this clear in this morning’s Gospel: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” and then places a small child in their midst to make the point.

I recently sent out a pastoral letter by email, and for those without email I placed copies of the letter on the Adult Education table in the Gathering Space. I began it by sharing precisely what we hear today: that understanding Jesus as centering us on God’s way of peace and justice is most true to following the 1st Century Jesus who walked this earth and asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus knew it was vital for his followers to have a shared understanding that he was fulfilling God’s way of peace and justice, and not the world’s way of power and might, if they were to be disciples.

That is just as true for us today — coming to a shared way of answering Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” is vitally important to our ministry together. And it’s a challenge, especially since that is not the Sunday School Jesus I — and probably many of you — grew up with. Let me give an example: in a family if each parent has a different understanding of what if means to be a family, and extended family have their understandings, and children add in their understandings, while not one them may be wrong, per se, without at least a common understanding shared by all family members there is chaos.

On a larger scale, in our church family there are potentially several hundred understandings of who Jesus is. And while each is unique and true for each individual, in order to have a strong shared ministry of being disciples of Jesus, we need to share a common understanding of who Jesus is. Otherwise there is the potential of following a hundred different Jesuses in a hundred differing directions.

Now let me be clear about this: there’s plenty of room for a variety of gifts for ministry to be practiced in faithful ways of following Jesus. I am advocating that we center our ministry on God’s way of peace and justice in Jesus Christ. The center is not the whole circle. But we need a center, one that is most faithful to the center of who Jesus is. And that center understands Jesus as the culmination and incarnation of God’s way to peace and justice in this world.

This is the salvation God offers us! Not just a ticket to another realm after we die, but as Disciples working with God here and now to make this world better and bring it to fulfillment as a New Creation. God saves you and me from those powers that our lives might be transformed, so we can be a part of saving the world from the powers of sin and death. God saves us so that our hearts may be changed. And with our hearts changed, you and I have the audacious call to be part of God’s changing the world, too. Isn’t that awesome?!

Awesome, yes! But also, challenging. It’s challenging because although the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah has assured the powers of sin and death will be defeated, they have not yet gone away and continue to make their mark in our lives, in our world.

I recognize that this changing way of answering who Jesus is may feel sudden for many of you — I admit that it has been a gradual change for me over thirty years of continuing study and growth as a pastor. But my best gift to you is that you may also come to know Jesus in a new way, a way that introduces us to the original Jesus of the First Century. It is my best gift because this Jesus is just in time for today’s world that is crying out for God’s way of peace and justice.

In my pastoral letter I also lifted up the need to follow Jesus as God’s way of peace and justice for the very survival of the church. I invite you to take a moment to think about your loved ones, family and friends, who no longer go to church anywhere. [Pause.] Are they children? Grandchildren? Long-time friends? Siblings? Are they growing quickly in number?

The Jesus who is God’s way of peace and justice in the flesh is the Jesus that our unchurched family and friends are most likely to follow, especially our young people. They see a world in crisis, and a church that has historically been more a part of the problem than the solution. They don’t want to be part of a church whose Christian identity includes a hostile God who uses Jesus as the litmus test for being in or out. They will perhaps, if it isn’t too late, follow a Jesus who brings a way of peace and justice that actually works, that actually is part of the positive change happening in the world. It is more and more common to hear “I am not a Christian, I am a follower of Jesus.” People are making a clear distinction between what being a Christian has come to stand for in this day and age, versus being a Disciple of Jesus the peacemaker.

In her book Christianity After Religion, (1) Diana Butler Bass introduces the reader to several folks not unlike out family and friends who have left church. One of those we’ll call Sheila, (2) told her own story in an Internet post:

I awoke this Sunday morning grateful that I didn’t have to go to church anymore. I still believe in the living God but after years of moving from church to church, I feel that I can wing it for now without risking my immortal soul. I grew up as the minister’s child in a white-bread mainline church that was orderly, kind and very nice. I lived in a constrained, polite fishbowl, which I put behind me as soon as I left for college.

She goes on to tell her church story: she began in the Episcopal church but left when they had their huge fight over the ordination of women. She tried the Catholic Church, where she loved their strong work with the poor and needy. But she eventually left because she couldn’t live with the way that they denied outsiders access to Holy Communion. She next tried a non-denominational mega-church that helped her a lot with her personal faith walk but couldn’t live with what she called the “salvation threats.” So now she doesn’t go to church anywhere, reading and studying on her own. She concludes: “So, for now, my offering goes to Doctors Without Borders and other charities. My work is my ministry as I meet the broken-hearted and lost every day. I quietly encourage the faith of the dispirited, pray for others and try to walk humbly with my God.” (3)

In the hopes of inviting back our loved ones who have left, Diana Butler Bass invites us to do this:

And the awakening? What will it look like? It entails waking up and seeing the world as it is, not as it was. Conventional, comforting Christianity has failed. It does not work. For the churches that insist on preaching it, the jig is up. We cannot go back, and we should not want to…. To awaken spiritually means that we develop a new awareness of God’s energy in the world in order to discern what is needed to open the possibilities for human flourishing. Discernment leads to new understandings of self, neighbor, and God — a vision of what can and should be. Thus, awakening demands we act upon the new vision. Wake up, discern, imagine, and do. What will make a difference to the future is awakening to a faith that fully communicates God’s love — a love that transforms how we believe, what we do, and who we are in the world. (4)

As I begin my seventh year as your pastor, this is what I’m inviting us to do together. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, September 16, 2012

1. Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening [HarperOne, 2012].

2. Ibid., in the book Butler Bass names this person as “Ellen.”

3. Ibid., pp. 22-23.

4. Ibid., pp. 36-37.

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