SERMON NOTES — December 9, 2018
The Call Committee fills out a form called the Ministry Site Profile (MSP), to give a glimpse of what the church is about for pastoral candidates. There’s a section of “forced choice” options that includes this one:
We focus on ideas and beliefs. We focus on skills and action.
Which would you choose for Lutheran Church of the Savior? In recent centuries, which do you think the Christian faith has been about? Which do you think the Christian faith is supposed to be about?
I think our Second Reading typifies the Christian faith. Paul begins his letter to the Philippians with the basics:
- the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion
- that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best
- having produced the fruit of justice that comes through Jesus Christ
What is Paul emphasizing here? Ideas and beliefs, or skills and actions? There is the part about “knowledge and full insight,” but it is a means to an end, “to determine what is best.”
Here’s how I’ve come to see it. I grew up in the church with an emphasis on ideas and beliefs, that believing a list of things brings salvation in terms of going to heaven when I die. Over the past 30 years, I’ve been learning that the New Testament paints a different picture: Jesus came to save us from our fallen way of being human — one fallen into tribalism, fear, and violence that prevents us from fulfilling our roles of helping God the Creator to care for one another and for the whole creation.
What has been happening in our culture this past 30 years? Christendom has been coming to an end. Christendom: the partnership between the church and Empire. Imperial ways of doing things are still alive and well, but they are separating themselves increasingly from the church — except the wings of the church that continue to cling to the old partnership.
Proposition: Empire is the epitome of tribalism on a grand scale, defining who’s in and who’s out, who’s friend and who’s enemy, who’s in power and who’s not. The Good News of Jesus the Messiah is decidedly a healing option to Empire, turning upside-down and inside-out Empire’s boundaries — “‘Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” Is this a metaphor for all the ways in which Luke’s Gospel proclaims the turning upside-down, inside-out?
- Luke 1–Mary’s song– “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
- Luke 4–Good news for the poor
- Luke 6–Blessed are the poor; cursed are the rich
- Luke 13:30–“Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
- Luke 15–Heaven rejoices when the lost are found
- Luke 16–Lazarus dies and lives with the patriarchs; the rich man ends up in Hades.
- Luke 22–The Gentile kings lord over others; Jesus is the Messiah who serves.
Jesus the King brings a politics that are upside-down inside-out from ours. And Luke twice gives us the list of rulers: at the beginning of the Christmas story and at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry in today’s Gospel — “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius. . . .” Are these Luke simply being an historian? Or is the implication that Jesus comes as a totally different king? The Greek word for Good News (euangelion) was precisely a term for imperial pronouncements, that would begin by making sure everyone knew who their rulers were. Luke is using the empire’s format of announcing Good News to proclaim a distinctly different Gospel!
In short, it is good that Christendom is coming to end, but there are growing pains. One of those growing pains is that authoritarian options of tribalism can still sound good to many people. It can be uncomfortable to stand in the breach of a great change-point in history.
So what does this mean for the church? It means a re-examination of our faithfulness to Jesus’ Gospel. We read scripture each week with different glasses on. We question some of our basic ideas and beliefs: wrathful, punishing God; hell and heaven; violence of God; the politics of human power in light of the power of a crucified God. Above all, we examine our practices, our skills and actions. Are they about love?
One of our most basic practices is worship. Does our worship welcome the stranger, or define us over against the stranger?
The creeds. Some have noticed that I’ve dropped them (with permission from the Worship Committee). The creeds do correctly state some basic beliefs, but they also have a history of practice. The creeds were officially instituted as Christendom was forming. Earlier creeds were more fluid and diverse. The story of the Nicene Creed is one of violent Empire: the aftermath led to the execution of two bishops and exile of a third. The creeds have been used during Christendom as a way of forcefully maintaining clear boundaries.
Baptism. A welcoming into God’s worldwide family? Or defining the Christian family tribalistically over against other religions and cultures? Example: I tweeked the baptismal prayer in October:
ELW: Pour out your Holy Spirit, and breathe new life into those who are here baptized. By your Spirit adopt us all as your children, through our Savior Jesus Christ. . . .
Revised: Pour out your Holy Spirit, and breathe new life into those who are here baptized. By your Spirit adopt us all as your children as one human family, through our Savior Jesus Christ. . . .
Even better, an ELW option for the baptismal prayer: “Pour out your Holy Spirit; wash away sin in this cleansing water; clothe the baptized with Christ; and claim your daughters and sons, no longer slave and free, no longer male and female, but one with all the baptized in Christ Jesus. . . .”
Communion. We began talking about that last week: changing our practice for inclusion. No more boundaries by denomination or age. 1 Corinthians 11 is about Paul challenging boundaries by class, rich and poor. Today we are even asking: boundaries by religion? Do we welcome the unbaptized? Pastor Paul’s stories of communing Muslims:
- Muslim professor who presented at the Education Hour and then was welcomed to worship — and decided to come forward to receive the bread because of the spirit of hospitality.
- Adult Muslim family (grown siblings and their older parents) began attending our church, with one of the daughters beginning to commune, and both daughters later asking to be baptized on Pentecost Sunday when my sermon was on the theme of Jesus not starting a new religion but redeeming our existing religions (Pentecost B Sermon 2012).
The bottom line is that we practice our worship and sacraments in ways that break down the barriers that divide us. Otherwise, we are practicing religion in ways that maintain the structure of Us and Them; we continue to be carriers of the disease instead of agents for healing.
Pastor Paul Nuechterlein
Lutheran Church of the Savior