7th Sunday of Easter
Texts: Rev 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21;
John 17:20-26; Acts 16:16-34
A QUESTION OF SURVIVAL
My good friend Brian McLaren’s latest book came out this week. It’s about his 25th book in 25 years. On this holiday weekend, with a small congregation, I’d like to tell you a bit about this latest book, his most daring in some ways. I’d like to tell you about it, partly, as a way to step back and take a look at my preaching with you these first seven months.
But first let me tell you a bit more about Brian — and myself, because there are some parallels. Brian was born in 1956 — the same as me, as it so happens — but while I was born into a moderate Missouri Synod church, Brian was raised in a very fundamentalist church. As we both made our way through middle school and high school, an interest in science raised some challenges to our Christian faith. But while my background allowed me to go to a university (Valparaiso) and then a seminary that helped me cope with my doubts in community with others, Brian knew that he had to leave the church of his upbringing. He didn’t completely lose his faith. In fact, he underwent somewhat of a revival through a Jesus movement in college, but he could never again go back to strict fundamentalism.
While Brian would always maintain a deep interest in science, his best talent was reading and writing, and he became a college English teacher. Not being able to go back to the church of his youth, Brian helped start a nondenominational church in 1982, while still teaching. About five years later, he became one of its pastors. One of the perks of being a nondenominational church is that you don’t have to go to seminary to be a pastor. But being a voracious reader helps. And so Brian not only became a great pastor but his articulation of the Christian faith has earned him comparisons to Martin Luther as someone who has done a great deal to articulate the Christian faith for a new time, a time of increasing secularity, a time of growing doubts and shrinking churches.
His books began as a way of addressing not only the doubts of his members and the unique challenges of our time, but also to chart his own journey through the way in which the Christian faith needs to change in order to better meet the doubts and challenges of our time. This included some of his own doubts as a pastor, and so helping to navigate a congregation through them was also part of his own spiritual journey.
I discovered his work about 15 years ago and found it to be of great help to me, going through many of the same changes and challenges. Why are so many people leaving not only church but the Christian faith altogether? It would be negligent of me as a pastor to not try to understand. Brian McLaren, with his brilliance for reading and writing, has become one of the chief guides for our time. He began writing these books for a Christian audience about twenty-five years ago, the first several years while he was still an active pastor, but for the past twenty years he has become one of the most sought-after speakers on these issues and has become a full-time Christian author and speaker. We met when he was speaker at a conference I attended eleven years ago and became friends (primarily because he had become a fan of my website and wanted to keep supporting my work).
Which brings us to his latest book which came out this week. I mentioned that it might be his most daring yet, as you might surmise even from its title: Do I Stay Christian? Say what? A Christian author and speaker questioning whether one should stay Christian? Brothers and sisters in Christ, I submit to you that even as we might remain steadfast in our own Christian faiths, isn’t it time that we seriously try to understand why so many around us are not? Many of the folks who are leaving are close family and friends. Shouldn’t we try to listen and understand why the Christian faith no longer works for them?
Brian, in this new book, honestly and sincerely puts himself in the place of posing the Christian faith as a question: Do I stay Christian? The chapters are brief, about 5-7 pages each. The first ten chapters he answers “No,” giving reasons why one shouldn’t remain Christian. The next ten chapters answer “Yes,” offering reasons why one might remain a Christian. But then there’s eight chapter which, whether one answers “Yes” or “No,” makes the case that we all need to navigate together in finding news ways to be human. Otherwise, how can we possibly meet the serious challenges facing us? Things like climate change, authoritarianism, gun violence, growing economic inequality, continuing racism, and so much more.
The greatest theme of my preaching and teaching has become that God sent Jesus precisely to save us from such evils of our own making, not by giving us a new religion, but by showing us through Jesus Christ a more true way to be human. In the past two months, for example, we began by highlighting in our scripture readings the places where God through the Hebrew prophets proclaims to be doing a new thing. Do we perceive it? Do we see how God’s power of love brings a way of peace that is completely different, basically opposite, of the power and ways to peace that human beings, seduced by emperors and empires, have typically ‘worshiped’?
One of the most important chapters in Brian’s new book sums up where we’ve been in the last couple months, highlighting many of the same bible passages and themes. He assumes, as I do, an evolutionary timescale for our long human history, and suggests that there’s been three long eras (which he calls “meta-movements”). First, our human species began as hunter-gatherers, nomads wandering over the whole globe in search of food sources. But then, second, over the past 5000 years we began domesticating animals and plants into steady food sources so that we could stay in one place and begin building ‘civilizations.’ These civilizations, however, had a dark side of growing into the imperialistic way of conquering others and living by exploitation and extraction. It is into this second stage of being human, that we read the Book of Revelation as a critique of this entire imperialistic way of being human in favor of God doing a new thing, offering us nothing less than a third, more true way of being human, to grow out of our current, older imperialistic way of being human.
Let me bring this home and summarize where we’ve been this Easter season with Brian’s brilliant articulation of this new vs old ways of being human [I didn’t read the entire excerpt in worship but give it here for the wider reading audience]:
What happens when a meta-movement runs its course? What happens when the tide begins to turn, when the assumptions that shaped the meta-movement no longer hold, often having been changed by the meta-movement itself? That’s when you enter a transition period, a time between the dominance of one way of life and the birth of another. For people whose lives and values were shaped by the old meta-movement, such a disruption feels like the end of an age, even the end of the world.
What would it mean for us if we happen to live during the decline of the old humanity, when a new humanity is in the painful, fragile process of being born? What if some of us are in the process of trying to resuscitate the old, while others of us are conceiving, gestating, and giving birth to the new? What if the growth of the new movement, the new humanity, the new social creation or construction depends on the old one losing its hegemony?
As I write those words, I can’t help but feel a flood of resonances with the Hebrew Scriptures. I feel echoes of Isaiah, speaking of God doing a new thing, something fresh springing forth, so that there will be good news for the poor, recovery of sight for the blind, freedom for the incarcerated and oppressed. (Oppression of the poor is one of the hallmarks of the old humanity.) I hear the prophet imagining a promised time when weapons are recycled into farm equipment because nobody studies war any more. (War is one of the hallmarks of the old humanity.) I hear Ezekiel’s oracle about a new heart, a heart of flesh that replaces the heart of stone. (The hardening of hearts in the name of self-interest and in-group interest is a hallmark of the old humanity.) I hear Amos envisioning a time when a river of justice rolls down from the heights, filling the lowest places first. (A concentration of power and wealth at the top is a hallmark of the old humanity.) I hear Micah relativizing everything in his religion except doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly before God. (Hoarding power, loving money, and walking in racial, religious, or national pride are hallmarks of the old humanity.)
In the Christian Scriptures, I hear Mary envisioning a time when the rich are sent away to feel the hunger of the poor they have exploited and avoided, a time when the poor are filled with the good things previously enjoyed only by the rich. I hear Jesus speaking parables of a new kingdom, of death and resurrection, of God loving the world and wanting to save it, not condemn it. I hear him speaking of coming “wars and rumors of wars” that mark the death of the status quo, but he sees them as birth pangs (Matthew 24:8), not a last gasp. I hear Paul speaking of a new creation and a new humanity in Christ, and John describing a New Jerusalem descending to the earth like a giant cube in a science fiction movie.
And so I imagine: in the middle of the old meta-movement of empires, domination, extraction, and exploitation, what if a long succession of prophets, including Mary, John the Baptizer, Jesus, Paul, and others, were giving us a vision for a new movement being born? And what if the Christian religion, instead of living into that progressive vision of a better future, pretty thoroughly accommodated itself to the old meta-movement? What if the Christian religion married the powers that be and slept more or less comfortably in their arms for nearly two thousand years?
What if part of the restlessness many Christians feel about their faith is disappointment with this accommodation to the powers of the old humanity? What if widespread Christian nominalism isn’t only a symptom of the half-heartedness of individual Christians but also of their sense that Christianity in its current forms is not really that big a deal and is unworthy of wholehearted commitment? Would those of us who left Christianity as a religion of the old humanity actually be leaving Christianity? Or would we be setting out to rediscover it as a religion leaning into a new humanity?
Whatever this new emerging meta-movement is, it is bigger than any single religion. In fact, it is bigger than religion as a whole. It issues an invitation, perhaps even an ultimatum, to all religions, all economies, all educational and political systems, all arts and trades, all sciences and technologies, everything. It is, we might say, a spiritual movement that encompasses everything.
Whether or not you stay Christian, I hope you can see what I see: with or without the Christian logo, we must invest in the new spiritual meta-movement that is already emerging within and among us. If it is to liberate us from the dominant meta-movement that has proven itself genocidal, eco-cidal, and therefore suicidal, the new meta-movement we need must go beyond mere sustainability. It must be fully regenerative, restoring old balances that have been disrupted and diminished by our current civilizational project and, where that is impossible, finding new balances that make new vitalities possible. (Do I Stay Christian?, pages 186-87)
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, God truly is doing a new thing! It has been underway for more than 2500 years! Do you perceive it?! Are you beginning to see how vital it is for us to understand it better and to jump on board? The old ways of human empire are threatening to kill us all. Revitalizing our Christian message and mission is not just vital for the survival of the church. No, we’re way beyond that. We’re now talking about the survival of our species. The crucial question is not, “Do I Stay Christian?” The crucial question is, “Can enough of us grow to be more truly human to save the planet, and us?” Can we work together with God’s Spirit and each other to face the serious challenges of survival? God has revealed to us a new way to be human. The question is, ‘Will we embrace it and live into it?’ Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, May 29, 2022