Texts: John 3:1-17;
Isa 6:1-8; Rom 8:12-17
SENT BY THE TRINITARIAN GOD ON A MISSION TO SAVE THE WORLD
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
It’s fitting that we end this Easter season with the dramatic call scene of the prophet Isaiah and his inspiring response, “Here am I. Send me!” It’s fitting because our readings during Easter have been filled with the message of being sent. In this Year B of the lectionary, we get a double dose of John: the Gospel Readings are from the Gospel of John and the Second Readings have been from the First Letter of John. Between the Gospel and the letters, did you know that John uses the word “send” (or “sent”) 65 times?! Yes, it should be very clear to us after two months of hearing that we are being sent out that God has a mission for us in the world — the world that God loved precisely by sending the Son to save it.
God sent the Son, and now God, with Jesus and the Spirit, sends us. Will we respond, “Here I am! Send me!”? On this Trinity Sunday, though, we pause to consider who it is that’s sending us. Who — what kind of God — is sending us on a mission? The Trinitarian God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; three persons, one God — that’s who is sending us. We sometimes spend a lot of gray-matter trying to figure out the Trinity like it’s a logical puzzle. But I want to submit to you today that the puzzle of the Trinity is best solved by considering these relationships of who is sending who and what kind of mission is involved in the sending. The Father has sent the Son into the world to save it. What does that mean? To save it? And now the Son sends the Spirit and us (!) into the world, presumably on this same mission of salvation.
So two questions: Who is sending us? And what kind of mission of salvation are we on? The who question makes a big difference. To start with a rather trite example: if you own a pizza franchise, then you are going to be sending pizza delivery folks out with pizzas. If you own a dot.com retail business, you send out loads of delivery trucks carrying packages to hopefully any place those trucks can reach. If you’re President of the United States you send out ambassadors to every nation, trying to maintain peace. Or occasionally, as we memorialize on this holiday weekend, you send out as President troops of soldiers who put their lives on the line to keep or win the peace by force. When the mission is war, those soldiers sometimes pay the ultimate price, which we remember with gratitude and sorrow this weekend: the lives lost for the sake of our human way of keeping peace through force.
Brothers and sisters, I begin with the question of who because an honest look at our Christian history is increasingly showing us that we went drastically wrong on who the God is that sends us out. Somewhere along the way we went from a God who loves the world by sending the Son to save it, to a God who sends followers of his Son out to conquer the world. Especially this Memorial Day weekend, we’re taking a look back one year to what happened last year: namely, the murder of George Floyd. And so many of us over this past year have been trying to take a more honest look at our history of racism.
It involves something few of us have been taught in our history classes, called the “Doctrine of Discovery.” It’s from the Fifteenth Century, even a number of decades before Martin Luther and the Reformation. Here’s a good explanation of it from my friend Christian author Brian McLaren:
American schoolchildren still learn the old rhyme: “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” But few of us learned what came before or after that fateful year. About forty years before 1492, Pope Nicholas V issued an official document called Romanus Pontifex, and by sixty-five years after 1492, a succession of genocides had occurred in the New World. Here’s the papal proclamation of 1455 that empowered the Christian kings of Europe to enslave, plunder, and slaughter in the name of discovery:
[quoting Pope Nicholas:] invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.
The statement serves as the basis for what is commonly called the Doctrine of Discovery, the teaching that whatever Christians “discover” [when sent out from Europe], they can take and use as they wish. It is breathtaking in its theological horror. Muslims (then called Saracens) and all other non-Christians are reduced to “enemies of Christ.” Christians, even as they plunder, enslave, and kill, count themselves friends of Christ by contrast. Christian global mission is defined as to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue” non-Christians around the world, and to steal “all movable and immovable goods” and to “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery” — and not only them, but their descendants. (The Great Spiritual Migration, pp. 76-77)
Isn’t it clear that after the Church had been allied with the Roman Empire for a millennium, that the God who sent us out in the 15th Century now resembled an emperor more than the Father of Jesus Christ who was sent to save the world, not conquer it? Jesus himself had been a person living under the oppression of the Roman Empire. He had opposed its ways so much that he was tried and executed on the empire’s preferred instrument of torture and death for insurrectionists. And then one of the great tragic ironies of history is that fifteen hundred years later his followers were sent out on an imperialistic mission conquest and death. We might say, “Yes, but that was the Roman Catholic pope who set that mission. Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation also came in the hundred years after that papal decree.” The problem with that, however, is in examining the historical evidence we find no substantial change in the mission of Protestants. Our nation ended up being founded mostly by Protestants. Is there historical evidence that we did things differently? Didn’t our ancestor-settlers steal the land from those who lived here? Didn’t we enslave African peoples, import them to the New World, and steal their labor?
Brothers and sisters, on this Memorial Day weekend, as we also look back and remember the murder of George Floyd one year ago on this very weekend, can we also continue to be honest about the historical legacy of a God who sent us to conquer instead of save the world? A God who justified our elevating the lives of white people to matter more than the lives of people of color? I truly feel it is imperative to do so, as we contend with another rise of authoritarianism mixed with white nationalism. We must be clear about who the God is who sends us out on the Son’s same mission to bring salvation and life to the world, not death and being vanquished.
So let’s also briefly get to our second question, the one about the mission. If we get the who question right, it helps a great deal in getting right the mission. A major clue lies in today’s beloved Gospel Reading. Jesus tells Nicodemus that it’s about being born from above. Nicodemus pictures someone literally being born again. In our Second Reading three weeks ago, from 1 John 5, it is made more clear to. John tells us that trusting in Jesus leads us to be born “of God.” In other words, the God who sends the Son and who now sends us is our Father, our heavenly parent, not an emperor. In fact, if God is creator of all that exists (as John tells us in the opening lines of his Gospel), then God is also a parent to every person on this earth, and all of humankind are brothers and sisters. How did we get it so wrong that we went out to conquer brothers and sisters? Instead of gathering everyone as family? That’s what it means to be born from above: to come to cherish every person on this earth as family. Once we see that, then so much else in the NT becomes clear.
We are talking about salvation, by the way, as not being about life after death so much. It assumes that. Christ did conquer death, and so there’s the Easter promise of life with God after death. But the New Testament is primarily talking about life here on this earth, and the mission God has for us of gathering the human family.
So, for instance, beginning on Easter Sunday we read part of the story of Peter and Cornelius, a Gentile commander in the Roman army. This is a while after Easter, and Peter’s still trying to understand. He says, ‘Aha! I get it! God shows no partiality.’ God doesn’t play these games of Us-vs-Them that we human beings are so inclined to play.
We also hear this message in numerous places in St. Paul, for example, in Ephesians 2. Paul says it’s all about grace, and our Lutheran ears perk up — so much so that we might stop there and miss the “so then” which comes next. What this grace is all about, says Paul, is that in the cross of Jesus Christ God is creating one new humanity out of two — none of our versions of Us-vs-Them has any staying power against God’s new creation of one new humanity. Or consider Galatians 3. Paul says, ‘You know what our baptism means: it means being born again from above so that there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.’ All those ways of playing Us-and-Them games melt away.
In short, once we see God as a loving parent drawing all the human family together, our mission becomes clear. We look around ourselves today and see people playing Us-vs-Them in every imaginable way. There’s division everywhere. Surprisingly, even during a pandemic this past year, when it should be clear to us that we face this disease together as a human family, everyone susceptible to its terrible effects, what do we see? We see the same divisiveness! Even with matters of basic hygiene: wearing a mask or not wearing a mask, getting a vaccination or not getting a vaccination. It’s crazy. How as followers of Jesus have we failed to answer the call to work together to beat this pandemic as one human family? That’s our wider mission. To be born from above, born of God, to see every person in this world as a member of our family, and to want to help them live in fullness of life. That’s the mission. That is what the Father sent the Son into the world to do, and now the Spirit sends us into the world to do. What will we say? “Here I am. Send me.” Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
United Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, May 30, 2021
Video version: https://youtu.be/PepX5ATj63M?t=891