Proper 17A Sermon (2002)

Proper 17 (Aug. 28 – Sept. 3)
Texts: Matthew 16:21-28;
Rom. 12:9-21; Jer. 15:15-21


For several weeks (see Proper 14A and Proper 15A), I’ve been talking about faith: what is it? I’ve suggested that it has to do with the number one problem of human communities: the way we break apart, hurting one another — in short, violence. Today I want to be absolutely clear by beginning with what faith is not. And this is crucial, because I think that faith is not what it is most popularly thought to be. Let me suggest the popular view: I think that most people today see the Christian faith as primarily about believing in Jesus so that you can be saved from going to hell when you die, and instead go to heaven to be with Jesus. That always seems to be the emphasis, doesn’t it? Our pictures of people evangelizing usually have something to do with coaxing folks to make a decision about eternity.

So let me be perfectly clear: I think we need another Reformation in the church, a re-formation of our faith. Or we need to finally bring to fruition the first Reformation, started by Martin Luther almost 500 years ago. I think that our problems of understanding what faith is are that serious. We need another upheaval time for the Christian faith, so that we can finally put away this mistaken notion of faith! Faith is not simply believing in Jesus so that you can avoid hell and go to heaven. It’s much more than that.

First of all, let’s examine this matter in terms of results: how well has this approach to faith brought people to church? Look around at the empty pews. We can point to cultural upheavals and changes in our society. We can begin to understand these empty pews, perhaps, but I think looking outside ourselves at our culture only takes us so far. We also have to take a hard look at ourselves. Is there anything about the way we are doing things that’s keeping people away? I would suggest that our approach to faith as believing in Jesus to get you to heaven provides an important reason for empty pews. All the statistical studies of unchurched people show that the vast majority say they believe in God, and even in Jesus. So I ask you: Haven’t folks figured out that given our definition of faith they can do that at home? With hectic lives we have to make choices about our schedules, and many people have realized that they can believe in Jesus at home, sitting in front of their television sets! They can believe in Jesus on the golf course, out in the woods, or out in a boat on Lake Michigan. If the main point is to believe in Jesus to get you to heaven when you die, then why do you have to come to church for that? Won’t coming every once in a great while do just fine?

And when they do bother to come to church, what do they find? When I talk to inactive or unchurched people they often talk about folks at church being hypocrites. When they say more and tell a story about what they mean, I hear stories about church members who like to bicker and fight about every little thing, people who like to point the finger at others. Who needs that? They can also get that at home.

In Europe, it’s gone way beyond the fighting and finger-pointing at church. Their continent has been devastated by war for many centuries, climaxing in last century’s millions of casualties in two World Wars — largely Christians killing Christians, I might add. And the church’s role in these wars has two often been either at the center of the fighting of those wars — such as the wars between Protestants and Catholics of the 16th and 17th centuries — or the church has been conspicuously absent in its mission to bring peace to situations of strife. What if those who called themselves Christians in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich had stood against Hitler? Could that war have even gotten off the ground? The World Wars of the last century, fought primarily on the soil of a so-called Christian continent, should be all the sign we need that the Christian faith is in real trouble, that it is woefully deficient and in need of re-formation. In Europe, people stay away from church in much greater numbers than here in the States, because the church has been a complete failure when it comes to bringing peace.

But what if our faith is supposed to be about much more than believing in Jesus so that you can get to heaven? What if, for example, it’s supposed to be precisely about getting along in peace as humans beings, about learning not to fight so much, about learning how to stand against violence, against hurting one another, without using violence ourselves? If that’s the case — namely, that the Christian faith is about bringing peace to a violent humanity — then we need nothing less than a re-formation of that faith.

Why? Why do I say that? Well, first, ask along with me about the violence implied in the popular idea of hell. If believing in Jesus gets us out of hell, whose violence are we fearing with that idea? Isn’t it God’s? Doesn’t the popular idea of faith, then, involve fear of an ultimate violence from God to punish us eternally? I think that it does. And if we have an ultimately violent God, then how can we represent a faith that’s about peace?

O.K., so if this is not what faith is about, then what is it about? Here’s the crucial point: I want to say that faith is about believing in Jesus — I’m not letting go of the believing in Jesus part! — but we believe in Jesus in order to ultimately be saved from human violence, not from God’s violence. What we begin to see with such a re-formation of faith in Jesus is a forgiving God, not a vengeful, punishing God. We meet in Jesus a God of love and mercy, not a God of wrath and violence. We see in the cross a God who takes on our worst, most deadly violence and responds with what? Not violence! Those at the foot of the cross were taunting and mocking Jesus to fulfill our human picture of the Messiah by calling on an army of God’s angels to slaughter them, God’s enemies — if he were the Messiah. No, Jesus let himself be killed, and God raised him on the third day in order to show us that his power of life can never ultimately be defeated by our powers of violence and death. Faith is believing in the God of Jesus, the God who is wholly and completely about life and love, the God who is about saving us from our violence, not condemning anyone with divine violence.

Martin Luther tried to begin to work such a re-formation of faith. He emphasized the God of grace and mercy that we meet in Jesus. But he also made a crucial mistake: he left intact the dark, wrathful, violent aspects of God in what he called the hidden God. I can’t blame Luther, really. He was only one person in the face of a millennium of movement in the church to the dark, violent God whom he had grown up fearing. But it behooves us now to finally finish the task of re-forming our faith in the God of mercy and love that we meet in Jesus. We have to put away all the experiences of God as a God of wrath and violence, of hell being a place where God sends us. There may be a hell, but it’s a place of our making that we choose to live in, not a place of God’s making in order to punish us. We’ll see hell as a place of our making in two weeks, as a matter of fact, when we encounter Jesus’ Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.

How can we be so wrong about faith? More importantly, how can we have the ship righted? Martin Luther realized that one of our most precious resources for faith is the Word of God, in preaching and teaching, and in reading Scripture together. We need to get back to the Word. I think that’s still the key, though we now have some further resources that can help us finish the job Luther began. What has helped me the most is the anthropology of the cross that I’ve talked about. It’s an understanding of who we are as human beings revealed in the cross, an understanding of why we are so inclined to use such violence and think ourselves righteous in doing so. We continually fall back into this human kind of thinking.

We can glimpse how wrong we typically are in today’s gospel lesson. We are like Peter, inclined to see things about God and about ourselves from a human perspective, not from God’s perspective. It is still so easy to fall on the side of Satan and become a stumbling block to the re-formation of our faiths into faith in a loving God.

Please get out the handouts in your bulletins, titled “A Re-formation of Faith.” That first verse at the top from 1 John 1 says it all for me: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” Again, Luther tried to begin to get us back to that, to the God of light, of mercy and love, that is revealed in Jesus Christ. But he failed, I think, in getting us back all the way to St. John’s insight that in God there is no darkness at all. Luther let the dark, angry images of God reside in what he called the hidden God. Doesn’t this verse from St. John basically tell us that, in Jesus Christ, there can’t be any darkness in God anywhere, even in supposedly hidden parts of God? That there’s no darkness at all?

I can’t hope to help us re-read all of Scripture this morning. Remember, for example, that in two weeks we will talk about hell, when we encounter the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Proper 19A). Our re-reading of Scripture, in the light of Jesus Christ, must be a pain-staking, thorough process. But there is something we could do yet this morning to give us a great start. Before we leave our reading of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (which we’ve been reading bit-by bit over the past fourteen weeks, and we finish in two weeks), I want to point out how Paul was trying to do exactly this re-reading of Scripture in the light of Christ. St. Paul knew from his own Jewish faith that there was still a great darkness to their experience of God, even though they had emphasized more than any other people that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” But slow to anger is still not an absence of anger, an absence of darkness. So I have laid out for you this morning an overview of how I think one of the main tasks in his letter to the Romans is precisely for St. Paul to re-work this notion of God’s anger, God’s wrath. Look at the handout with me:

  • Notice, first, how God’s wrath comes up right away in 1:18 as a theme in this letter.
  • But he will immediately begin to work a transformation of this idea; 1:24 is an example. Three times over the next several verses Paul will tell us how God’s wrath can be interpreted as simply a ‘giving us up’ to the consequences of our own actions. It’s the same word that Jesus uses for talking about giving himself up to their leaders that he might be put to death on the cross.
  • Here’s the rub of this idea of God’s wrath as giving us up to the consequences of our own idolatry: we are the ones who treat each other wrathfully. We are the ones who hurt each other and do violence to one another. Jesus gave himself up to that, without responding in wrath himself, in order to show us that the God of love and life is more powerful than the worst of our wrath. Jesus shows us God’s righteousness revealed in the cross (Rom. 3:22ff.), and it’s totally different from that idea of righteous violence we generally operate under in order to justify our own violence, our own wrath, turned against each other.
  • Sure enough, after Romans 1:18, St. Paul even quits calling it “God’s wrath”; he simply refers to it as “wrath” throughout the rest of Romans.
  • There’s one other verse, 3:18, where God is connected with inflicting wrath, but notice what Paul says after it: “I speak in a human way.” (Paul’s parentheses, not mine.) In other words, he’s telling us point blank that thinking in terms of God inflicting wrath is our human way to think! It’s like Jesus rebuking Peter in this morning’s Gospel: ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are thinking like a human, not like God.’ Peter’s view of the Messiah is that he will inflict God’s wrath on their enemies. Instead, Jesus will let their enemies inflict the human wrath on himself! And God will raise him on the third day in order to show us that our human wrath, our human violence, cannot win the day in the end.
  • But we still persist in thinking in human ways like Peter. Notice Romans 5:9 and 12:19, the latter verse being part of our reading today. I’ve put the words “of God” in brackets in these two verses because the translators have inserted these words “of God” in the translation where Paul left them out in the original Greek. Paul is trying to re-work the notion of God’s wrath into one of turning us over to the consequences of our wrath. And we still won’t let him! We still read the wrath as “of God” even when Paul doesn’t say it!
  • No, next Sunday, we will hear the climax to this section of Romans that says that the one and only fulfillment of the Law is Love.

Well, this bible study should take a lot more time than we have this morning. I hope that you will take the opportunity to study Scripture with me this year. In the meantime, we have once again this morning that unbelievable gift of God’s grace in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. We are fed in the faith of Jesus Christ, not just to save us from hell, but to draw us together into a Holy Communion. In other words, we are fed with a faith that empowers us for peace, for living together in loving service of one another. Being empowered to live with others is not something you can do by yourself in front of a television or out in the woods. It’s something to put into practice as we are fed and sent out to be signs of God’s forgiveness and peace in this world. So, come, let us eat together for the re-formation of our faith. Let our faith be made over into the likeness of the faith of Christ. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, August 28 & Sept. 1, 2002

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