7th Sunday of Easter
Texts: Rev. 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21;
John 17:20-26; Acts 16:16-34
RENEWED EVANGELISM: GETTING THE STORY OF GRACE STRAIGHT
A woman in Atlanta had enrolled in a psychology program at a local university. One class assignment required her to identify the sort of person that she most feared, and then to go and meet just such a person. This Christian woman admitted that she most feared gay people and so, much to her credit, she befriended some gays.
The fears of her class colleagues were even more revealing. A full 40% of the students in her class said that the people they most feared were Christians.
Do these students rightly fear Christians? Are Christians scary people? The purpose of the class exercise seemed to be to show students how easily we stereotype each other without even knowing each other, and how we can dispel our fears by meeting people whom we find strange. So maybe Christians aren’t as bad as the media sometimes suggests. There’s some truth in that, but to hide behind that fig leaf lets us off the hook too easily.
I also keep mulling over the observation of the New Testament scholar Marcus Borg of Oregon State University. In a footnote to his book The Heart of Christianity, he says that when he asks his unchurched university students to write a short essay about their impressions of Christianity, “they consistently use five adjectives: Christians are literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, and bigoted.” That’s also scary.
Another pastor suggested that Christians have a “branding” problem. She observed how companies go to great lengths to brand themselves in ways that communicate not just a catchy slogan or a superficial tagline but their core identity, what they most want the public to think of when they hear their name. Good branding is powerful; just think of all the corporate jingles that you can’t get out of your head even if you tried.
This pastor then proposed an interesting thought experiment: “What do you think the average person on the street, in the grocery store, at the gas station would come up with if we went around and asked them to sum up in just a few words what the Christian church was all about? In many cases our branding tag line for the most part would be something like — ‘We’re right. . . you’re wrong. Let us correct your behavior. Give us your money for something irrelevant to your life.’ Whether we like it or not, we have been branded in these ways by a culture that for the most part sees the church primarily outside of the mainstream of current life.”
At the Evangelism Workshop here at Prince of Peace last Saturday, we talked about getting our story straight for this new millennium in which, for the first time since the fourth century, Christianity isn’t central to our culture. Hosted by Bev Dirkin and the synod Evangelism Team, this workshop is so important to our call as proclaimers of the “Good News” in Jesus Christ. We are realizing that at a time when Christianity was still dominant in the culture, we heard the “Good News” as insiders. Today, the majority of Americans are unchurched and outsiders to the “Good News.” Do they hear it in the same way? I think I’ve sketched for us this morning an indication that it no longer is heard as “Good News” to outsiders, as it was in the days of St. Paul taking the Gospel to Gentiles. Our so-called evangelism is still ladened with messages about a stern God condemning all those who have any questions about their beliefs. The Kennedy Evangelism, for example: asking “Where would you be if you died tomorrow?” Or bumper stickers that read: “Friends don’t let friends go to hell.” We need to renew our message of Good News. We need a new brand or tagline for our story.
The Bible is a mini-library of 66 books, written mainly in Hebrew and Greek by about 40 authors across more than a thousand years. It’s long (my Bible is 1,635 pages), has many plot twists, and is rooted in ancient cultural settings that are foreign to us today. But can we “brand” the Bible’s story? What would be its singular tagline? Can we reduce its myriad complexities to an essential substance that clarifies and enlightens rather than reduces and oversimplifies?
Yes. The last sentence of the Bible does exactly that: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all” (NASB, Revelation 22:21). That’s the Bible’s branding, and, especially as Christians in the Lutheran tradition, it ought to be ours, too. Not a narrow political ideology whether left or right, not a specious theory rooted in junk science, nor judgmentalism of others that is eager to exclude people unlike ourselves. We could even reduce our branding from one sentence to one word: grace.
Some variants in the original Greek have a different reading for Revelation 22:21 that narrows the appeal for grace to “God’s people” (NIV) or “the saints” (ASV, NRSV). But I propose to you that the Gospel is good news especially to those who don’t believe it. So I like the reading of the New American Standard Bible, which retains the expansive nature of God’s grace by translating the Greek in a strictly literal if awkward way: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all.” Grace to all.
God’s lavish favor, without conditions or limits, for all people; that’s our branding. In a similar “branding” exercise the apostle Paul also pushes the parameters of divine grace, not only beyond “the saints” but even beyond humanity. Romans bible study. God is not wrathful in the ordinary sense.
Romans 5:10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.
Paul says that God was in Christ reconciling the whole creation and the entire cosmos to Himself (Romans 8; 2 Corinthians 5:19).
The God whom Jesus revealed isn’t mean or scary, and if we reflect his image people need not fear his followers. Rather, said Jesus, he’s the sort of God who throws a party for a kid who wasted the family fortune, who refuses to condemn a woman caught in the act of adultery, who breaks taboos of ethnicity and gender to encourage a woman who had been married five times, who welcomes a criminal into his kingdom as the man gasps for breath while being executed, and who embraces his closest disciples even though they abandoned him and denied ever knowing him.
And so the last page of the Bible invites everyone with these welcoming words: “And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift” (Revelation 22:17).
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, May 20, 2007