Proper 14 (August 7-13)
Texts: John 6:35, 41-51;
Eph 4:25-5:2; 1 Kings 19:4-8
“ETERNAL LIFE” FOR THE HERE AND NOW
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. Churches are trying to assess moving forward, with an awareness that things weren’t great before COVID-19. 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 — we ask things like, ‘if we were to do more updated music and use technology in worship, will young people come back?’ 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 the church’s message of salvation has mostly been about the afterlife. It misses the mark on their fundamental concerns for this life.
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? Since we just read about Jesus talking about what’s usually translated as “eternal life,” we’ll talk more about this in a few minutes. 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, a Christian author and teacher who writes about these vital questions for the church, tells a story of how he began to change his mind. He was having lunch with a prominent Evangelical theologian who unsettled his Protestant version of the Gospel, beginning with a provocative statement: “Most Evangelicals haven’t got the foggiest notion of what the gospel really is.” He then asked Brian how he would define the gospel, and he answered with what we Lutherans learned in catechism class: “justification by grace through faith.” To which his lunch guest followed up with this simple but annoying rhetorical question: “You’re quoting Paul. Shouldn’t you let Jesus define the gospel?” And then asked Brian, “What was the gospel according to Jesus?” A little humiliated, Brian mumbled something like, “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?” And here was perhaps the theologian’s most important question of all: “Shouldn’t you read Paul in light of Jesus, instead of reading Jesus in light of Paul?”
I relate to McLaren’s story myself as similar to my own journey as a pastor these past thirty years. New perspectives on how to read the New Testament have led many of us to “Repent!” — made literally means to have a change of mind and heart — to repent about our version of the gospel and its meaning for the world, especially for our children’s and grandchildren’s sakes. (For the complete version of Brian McLaren’s story see A New Kind of Christianity, 137-38.)
Today’s Gospel Reading gives us an opportunity to begin a change of heart and mind about our basic Christian message because of key phrases like “eternal life” which renowned biblical scholar Tom Wright translates as “life in God’s coming age.” I give a more full explanation in the Sermon Notes that you can take home with you. Here, let me summarize that the key problem is translating the Greek word often rendered in English as “eternal.” Greek philosophy had an idea about the soul living on when you die in an eternal realm of ideas. They believed bodies and creation to be corrupt, and so we look forward to leaving them behind when we die. If that sounds familiar, it’s because our Christian message has become too much like that Greek philosophy.
But here’s the crucial thing: it’s decided NOT how Jews and Christians like Jesus and St. Paul thought! Our Jewish-Christian heritage proclaims that the God of Jesus created the world good, not corrupt. The good creation became corrupt along with human sin, but God’s plan has always been to set the corruption right and to bring the good creation to fulfillment and completion. It has never been about giving up on creation and then evacuating righteous Christians to another place called heaven. No, when Jesus says he came to bring “eternal life,” it means he came to launch God’s age of setting things right.
Let me be clear: I’m not taking away our hope for the afterlife. The Easter promise remains intact that God has defeated the powers of death. But the views of heaven and hell which developed over the last 2000 years aren’t what the Bible talks about. God holds us in God’s power of life when we die until the day of resurrection. On that day we will have resurrection bodies like Jesus on Easter so that we can enjoy God’s good creation fully come to fulfillment. This was all launched that first Easter morning. Jesus has opened the door to life in God’s new age, a time of setting things right. And you and I are called to be part of that!!
Just a couple of other quick clues from our Gospel Reading these past weeks in John 6. When the word “heaven” is used by Jesus, notice that there is nothing about going to heaven. Rather, we have the opposite: Jesus and the bread of heaven have come from heaven to revive our lives in the here and now. It’s like we pray all the time in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven.”
The other thing we need to notice involves last week’s portion of John 6. Jesus’s listeners ask a question to Jesus about work, God’s work. “What should we be doing,” they ask him, “so that we can be doing the work God wants?” Jesus replies, “This is the work God wants of you, that you trust in the one he sent.” In the previous chapter, John 5, Jesus has already given his followers more than a clue about God’s work. When he heals a lame man on the Sabbath, he tells that he is doing God’s work. This comes up again a bit later in John 9 when Jesus heals a man blind from birth. There, he even mimes God’s creation of human beings in Genesis 2, where it tells us that God created human beings from the dirt. Jesus heals the man born blind by taking some dirt, spitting on it, rubbing it on his eyes, and telling him to go wash it off in the pool of Siloam (which means “sent”; John 9:6-7). So what does this all mean? It means what we’ve talked about here: that Jesus came to show us how God is launching a renewal of creation and sending us to be part of it. In John 14 (verse twelve) Jesus tells his disciples that they will do even greater works than he! Because he is going to the Father. When Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man” it means Human Being 2.0, a new start on being human.
Brothers and sisters, we are here once again this week to eat the bread of heaven, Jesus’ power of life to be human in a renewed way — here and now! We are fed with Jesus’ power to be human as his Father intended us to be: you and I are created in the image of God to help take care of a good creation and of one another. We are sent out into this world with a message of how to love and forgive so that we may begin to heal our divisions and work together on facing the many crises that threaten our survival. Do you think that’s a message and a mission that our children and grandchildren might join up for? Amen.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
House of Prayer Lutheran Church,
Franklin, WI, August 8, 2021