Epiphany 3B Sermon (2024)

3rd Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Mark 1:14-20;
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Cor 7:29-31

Facebook live (sermon begins at 27:20): https://fb.watch/r6rdgFFqY3/


“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” In Mark 1:14, we hear a one-verse summary of the basic Gospel which Jesus taught his followers to proclaim. Two thousand years later, we might ask ourselves: Do we have the full sense of what Jesus was originally talking about? Does our proclamation of the Gospel revolve around the coming of God’s reign into the world? Or Does our version of the Good News typically have more to do with ‘going to heaven when you die’? In other words, the opposite. Instead of proclaiming God’s heavenly reign coming down into the world through Jesus, we more often talk about going up to God’s heavenly reign after we die. Do you think this might pose a problem?

In the last month or so, we’ve been talking about repentance as a radical change of heart and mind. See repentance as a strong theme in our readings today, too. We see it in the First Reading where not only the people of Ninevah repent, but God repents, too, of the evil God had planned to do. God changes God’s mind about returning evil for evil — very important story. This morning, I’d like to suggest that the core of what we need to repent is our basic message. We need to get back to Jesus’ core message about the reign of God coming into this world through him.

Part of the unfortunate history behind this is that many in the church are becoming aware of how Martin Luther and the Reformation contributed to the problem. It’s tragically ironic that, in trying to get the church back on track to its core message, Luther inadvertently took a step that led us into a mistaken detour. Luther was right to call the church back to a message centered on grace. But in doing so, he shifted the focus from Jesus’ message to a certain aspect of St. Paul’s message, one we Lutherans know well, generally referred to as “Justification by grace through faith.” Many leaders in the church today are speaking out about getting back to Jesus’ framing of the Gospel as the Good News of God’s reign coming into the world.

One of those leaders has become a friend of mine, Brian McLaren. He was a parish pastor for twenty years who gradually morphed into an author and presenter. Some regard him as a modern-day Martin Luther, someone articulating how we need to repent of past mistakes and move forward with the best of our church traditions. I’d like to share a substantial excerpt from one of his books that shares a story about his own change of mind and heart regarding the Gospel itself. His conversions of sorts is something I’ve gone through, too, which I now endeavor to share with others in my preaching and teaching. My personal repentance, my change of heart and mind, has been brewing for about fifty years now. And I offer it to you this morning, articulated through the words of my friend Brian McLaren. Brian writes,

Like a lot of Protestants, for many years I “knew” what the gospel was. I “knew” that the gospel was the message of “justification by grace through faith. . . .” To my embarrassment, though, about [twenty-five] years ago I stopped knowing a lot of what I previously knew.

A lunchtime meeting in a Chinese restaurant unconvinced and untaught me. My lunch mate was a well-known Evangelical theologian who quite rudely upset years of theological certainty with one provocative statement: “Most Evangelicals haven’t got the foggiest notion of what the gospel really is.” He then asked me how I would define the gospel, and I answered as any good Romans Protestant would, quoting Romans. He followed up with this simple but annoying rhetorical question: “You’re quoting Paul. Shouldn’t you let Jesus define the gospel?” When I gave him a quizzical look, he asked, “What was the gospel according to Jesus?” A little humiliated, I mumbled something akin to “You tell me,” and he replied, “For Jesus, the gospel was very clear: The kingdom of God is at hand. That’s the gospel according to Jesus. Right?” I again mumbled something, maybe “I guess so.” Seeing my lack of conviction, he added, “Shouldn’t you read Paul in light of Jesus, instead of reading Jesus in light of Paul?”

. . . I had always assumed that “kingdom of God” meant “kingdom of heaven,” which meant “going to heaven after you die,” which required believing the message of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which I understood to teach a theory of atonement called “penal substitution,” which was the basis for a formula for forgiveness of original sin called “justification by grace through faith.”

But my lunch mate’s questions unsettled all that. They bugged me so much that I started rereading the gospels with new intensity, and it became clear that my knowledge needed to be doubted and at least some of my accumulated learning needed to be either unlearned or supplemented. Jesus’s one-word preface to his gospel — “Repent!” — made sense to me as never before (Mark 1:15).

Increasing numbers of us gain courage to speak what has become joyfully clear to us in this fresh reading of the gospels: Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion to replace first Judaism and then all other religions, whether by the pen, the pulpit, the sword, or the apocalypse. (In fact, in light of everything we know about Jesus, doesn’t it seem positively ludicrous to imagine him gathering his disciples to announce, “Listen, guys. Here’s my real agenda. We’re going to start a new religion, and we’re going to name it after me”?)

Instead, he came to announce a new kingdom, a new way of life, a new way of peace that carried good news to all people of every religion. A new kingdom is much bigger than a new religion, and in fact it has room for many religious traditions within it. This good news . . . wasn’t simply information about how individual souls could leave earth, avoid hell, and ascend to, heaven after death. No, it was about God’s will being done on earth as in heaven for all people. It was about God’s faithful solidarity with all humanity in our suffering, oppression, and evil. It was about God’s compassion and call to be reconciled with God and with one another — before death, on earth. It was a summons to rethink everything and enter a life of retraining as disciples or learners of a new way of life, citizens of a new kingdom. (A New Kind of Christianity, 137-39)

Brothers and sisters in Christ, do you see how big this is? Do you see how much work we need to do? We’re talking about unlearning a significant part of what we were taught about the Gospel and relearning what Jesus’ original Gospel was most truly about. I firmly believe that to grow the church once again, it’s not primarily a matter of having a band and playing the most up-to-date music. It’s not first about having a thriving Sunday School and children’s programming. Before we do those things, or consider those things, we need to get our basic message right! We need to substantially revitalize our ability to proclaim the Good News. That’s huge!

Let me be clear in bringing this to a close: I’m not saying we have to relearn everything. The grace part of what Luther taught is extremely important. It’s the foundation of our message. But to carry forward the Reformation in our time, we need to get a better grasp of what the offer of God’s grace is more fully about. It’s not just about saving a few souls for the afterlife. As good as that hope is, the Gospel is about something much bigger. It’s about saving God’s “very good” Creation. It’s about joining with our children and grandchildren to make this world we are leaving them a better place. So it’s about addressing the major issues of our time: Like climate change, and economic inequality, and the rise in authoritarian politics, most often mixed with racism and homophobia — the rise of neo-Nazism. Do you think more people might show up in the pews to hear about what God’s politics in Jesus have to say to such things which to our children and grandchildren? Stay tuned next week and the weeks to follow. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, January 21, 2024

Facebook live (sermon begins at 27:20): https://fb.watch/r6rdgFFqY3/

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