Proper 11B Sermon (2021)

Proper 11 (July 17-23)
Texts: Ephesians 2:11-22;
Matt 28:16-20; Gen 2:15-16; 3:1-7


As your guest preacher this morning, I’d like to begin a bit differently. I’d like to step back for a moment to look at the big picture. We are hopefully coming out of a pandemic — though the Delta Variant is worrisome — and churches are trying to assess moving forward. The trend across the church, over the last decade especially, has been a steady loss of participation and members. Our numbers are shrinking, and so we’re anxious that the pandemic couldn’t have helped that trend.

And these anxieties about the church’s future usually have a personal element. I had an ELCA member in Racine say to me recently, ‘The most difficult thing is that I can’t get my own son to come to church anymore. Do you have any ideas about why that is? Why are so many of our children and grandchildren leaving the church?’ Take a moment to ask yourself: can you think of a person in your life — a child, a grandchild, a close friend — who’s no longer coming to church?

I do have an idea of how to answer this crucial question. In my 30+ years of being a pastor, I’ve become increasingly convinced that people are leaving the church, especially young people, because our basic message of salvation is missing the mark. We’ve wondered about the music or the format of worship — if we do more updated music and use technology in worship, will young people come back?, we ask — but I fervently believe it’s something more basic than that. Young people look at a world with growing crises that threaten our survival and our message of salvation has mostly been about the afterlife. It misses the mark on their fundamental concerns.

See if this sounds right to you. I grew up with an emphasis on the afterlife at the center of the message of salvation — namely, that we go to heaven when we die through faith in Jesus. Right? Let me be clear: I think that Jesus’ defeat of death on Easter morning is a significant part of salvation. What I’m suggesting today isn’t about taking away hope for life after we die. But what I want to suggest to you today is that it’s only a part of that picture of salvation and not even the most important part.

Brian McLaren is a Christian author and teacher who writes about these vital questions for the church. In his book A New Kind of Christianity, he asks a basic question about the version of the Gospel that many of us grew up with, and he tells this story of how he began to change his mind:

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,” distorted or forgotten by those pesky Catholics, but rediscovered by our hero Martin Luther through a reading of our even greater hero [St.] Paul, especially his magnum opus, the Letter to the Romans. If Catholics were called “Roman Catholics” because of their headquarters in Rome, we could have been called “Romans Protestants,” because Paul’s Roman letter served as our theological headquarters. As its avid students, we “knew” without question what it was about. To my embarrassment, though, about fifteen 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 didn’t admit it to the theologian as I stared deep into my hot and sour soup, but I had no idea what he was talking about. As a [fundamentalist] reader of the Bible, I considered the words of Jesus and Paul pretty much on a par. Beyond that, 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 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). “Repent” means (literally, . . . have a change of mind and heart), and I needed to [have a change of mind and heart] about the gospel — its meaning for the world and for me. (A New Kind of Christianity, 137-38)

I’d like for us to consider this morning nothing less than a change of heart and mind about the Gospel — a change of heart and mind that could resonate with those family members and friends, those young people in our community, who are not in church. It involves a number of elements that Brian McLaren mentioned in his story about converting to a new version of the Gospel. It involves St. Paul and which of his letters might be our “theological headquarters”; it involves Jesus and his clear Good News of, “The kingdom of God is at hand”; and it involves basics like “original sin” and how the Gospel addresses it.

So let’s begin with St. Paul. This summer we are reading through his letter to the Ephesians, and I’d like to propose that his message in today’s reading articulates his most clear statement of the Gospel. If we had begun reading this morning three verses earlier, we’d have heard what many of us grew up with as the Gospel: “For by grace you have been saved through faith,” writes Paul, “and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8). That’s pretty close to that Gospel of “justification by grace through faith.” The only thing missing is the word “justification” — which is why Lutherans have generally preferred Romans to Ephesians. But I want to propose something to you more basic this morning than whether all the right buzz words are there.

Our reading today begins with the words, “So then.” I’d like us to pay serious attention to that “So then.” Yes, the Gospel must begin with grace, but does it end there? Has the problem for these past five hundred years of Protestantism been that we begin and end with grace? “You are saved by grace through faith,” says Paul in verse 8, but then he also says “So then” in verse 11. “So then” what? “Christ is our peace,” that’s what! And he goes on to describe that peace in the most amazing way: “that Christ might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two” (Eph 2:15).

So then. One New Humanity. What if we were to preach and live into a Gospel described as One New Humanity. Look around at our world today. We are struggling to put a pandemic behind us. This moment could be the ideal opportunity to discover anew that we are One New Humanity, that we could most easily beat this virus if we worked together as one human family. But what has happened instead? The pandemic has emphasized our divisions once again, the ways in which we are two instead of one — even such basic things like wear a mask or not, like being vaccinated or not.

And a year ago after George Floyd was murdered, our nation once again has been challenged to grapple with the deepest division of all, that between white folks and people of color. What if following Jesus is about meaningful ways to live into a Gospel of One New Humanity in place of all the two’s? Shouldn’t that include resisting the most entrenched form of division in our culture for the last five hundred years? Doesn’t a Gospel of One New Humanity compel us to learn about racism and work to dismantle it? Just like for St. Paul in the First Century it meant putting everything he had into reconciling Jew and Gentile?

And let’s consider the matter of “original sin” for just a moment. We read that familiar story of sin in today’s First Reading, and we often hear simply that the sin was about disobeying God. The woman and the man ate from the forbidden tree in the middle of the Garden. But what if we took seriously the fact that the tree goes by the name of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? The serpent entices the man and woman by telling them that their eyes would be opened by eating from the tree, and that they would be like God in knowing good and evil. Two verses later it tells us that their eyes were opened, so that they noticed their nakedness — presumably, their first judgment between good and evil. But do you see how thinking we know good and evil like God has gotten us into big trouble? It becomes a basic part of playing the Us-vs-Them game: we’re good, they’re evil.

Think of our current politics. It’s nearly impossible to talk about any issues or policies for the common good anymore without painting your opponent as evil. In fact, much of our politics has dropped work on issues and policies altogether, and it’s simply about identifying enemies for us to hate. What if being about the Gospel of One New Humanity means finding opportunities to suspend our judgment about other people as good and evil so that we can more often find ways to work together for the common good? What if it means discerning which of our politicians are making good faith efforts to work together and which ones seem trapped in playing the divisive games of Us-vs-Them?

Finally, let’s briefly take a look at whether Paul’s Gospel of One New Humanity is in line with Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom of God. Let’s make sure we are reading Paul through Jesus and not the other way around. I believe that in Ephesians you very much have Paul’s way of talking about the kingdom or reign of God. He uses some of the political language of his day, most especially his emphatic use of the title “Christ,” which comes from the Hebrew “Messiah,” meaning God’s anointed political leader — king, if you will. When we say “Jesus Christ,” Christ isn’t his ‘second name.’ It’s his title: King Jesus. To proclaim Jesus as Lord also means that Caesar isn’t Lord and emperor, Jesus is.

Paul also uses language of citizenship versus immigration. He tells the Gentile Ephesians that they once were aliens to the commonwealth [politeia in Greek], the political state, of Israel, but in King Jesus no more are they immigrants. They are now full citizens, part of the body-politic of God. He also uses the language of being one human family. The Ephesians are fully members of the household of God. That means that every person in this world is a brother or sister. That means that our politics should be undertaken as if we are all part of one household working together.

What do you think? Does that Gospel of One New Humanity speak more poignantly to our times? More importantly, does it give us a more faithful sense of mission in the first place? We are called to take part in God creating One New Humanity — basically, a new way to be human. Brothers and sisters, this is not only a Gospel in which others will want to take part, but it is the Gospel that our broken world sorely needs — to not only survive but then also to get on to God’s plan for all life to flourish. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
St. John’s Lutheran Church,
West Milwaukee, WI, July 18, 2021

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