Dear People of Bethlehem,
Happy New Year! We begin an important year together as pastor and congregation. I’ve had a year to get to know folks and become more familiar with your traditions and history. This year we need to envision whether our mutual strengths and assets can help us move forward and begin to grow.
From the beginning I’ve spoken about what I believe is my greatest asset: to offer in my preaching and teaching a revitalized Gospel message for us to share with others – especially those who have quit going to any church, including the majority of our children’s and grandchildren’s generations. I strongly believe that the best chance we have to invite them back to church is with a revitalized Gospel message.
Where does that revitalizing begin? I’ve suggested that it begins with the here and now rather than focusing on the afterlife. Once again, let me be clear: it’s not that the promise of life-after-death is not an important part of the Gospel promise. It is. But a revitalized reading of the New Testament reveals that the Good News in Jesus Christ is much more than the promise of life-after-death, which is actually secondary. The central theme of the Good News across the whole New Testament is the coming of God’s reign to earth through the death and resurrection of Jesus such that God has launched a project of New Creation. Baptized into the Holy Spirit, we are invited to live lives of participating in that project of New Creation. This has direct relevance to our everyday lives! Where is that reign of God in the world? What does it look like? How can you and I join in? And with our children and grandchildren in mind: is the direct relevance to our daily lives what has been missing for so many who have left the church?
In this second year as a your pastor, I’d like to ‘drop the other shoe.’ I’ve already dropped hints along the way. But now it’s time to be more direct about a related aspect of working to revitalize the Gospel message. Not only does an overfocus on the afterlife miss the main point of the Gospel message about God’s reign coming into the world through a New Creation that began on the first Easter, but it leads to a less faithful discipleship and ministry. It leads to less faithful mission in the world and less fulfilling lives as disciples of Jesus. So, while the promise of life-after-death remains vital, an overfocus on it can lead to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, in his book The Cost of Discipleship, “cheap grace.” Under the growing shadow of Nazism, he was trying to revive German Lutherans and Christians to see that a full engagement with the Gospel leads disciples of Jesus to stand against evils like racism, anti-Semitism, and authoritarianism.
Here’s the bottom line of ‘dropping the other shoe’ of a revitalized Gospel message: if our focus isn’t so completely on the afterlife, we see that the coming of God’s reign in Jesus Christ stands as a critique of all human reigns and empires. We begin to realize that overfocusing on the afterlife has been convenient for human reigns in trying to cover over the truth of their shortcomings, their injustice, compared to the reign of God in Jesus Christ. Acceptance of cheap grace more easily allows us to idly sit by when injustice is growing around us.
Looking back over my own life, for example, I valued the message of love in my home church with its wonderful promise of going to heaven when I die. But with the conversion of faith that I’ve undergone since my childhood in the sixties, I’m mystified by how our church life didn’t get involved with the nonviolent resistance to racism in the Civil Rights Movement. To me, now, the latter is very close to what the reign of God looks like in the world as it seeks to bring the human family together. The Civil Rights Movement both centered on the kind of justice we see in Jesus and the strategy of using the nonviolent power of love. With all the crises facing our children and grandchildren, would participating in similar movements of justice appeal to them as we seek to grow our ministry? I believe that a revitalized Gospel leading to revitalized mission will provide the ultimate key. Much more on this in the year ahead.
One specific invitation: join us for Sunday morning Bible Study as the next topics will help highlight the contrast between God’s reign and human reigns. We will study first the Minor Prophets, Daniel-Malachi, and then the Book of Revelation. See you on Sundays and, again, Happy New Year!
Peace, Pastor Paul