Proper 15B Sermon (2021)

Proper 15 (August 14-20)
Texts: John 6:51-58;
Eph 5:15-20; Prov 9:1-6


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 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 — mostly about how to make sure we go to heaven when we die. What I’m proposing to you this morning is that such a focus misses the mark on the fundamental concerns of young people for this life. I fervently believe that what we need is a renewal of our basic message.

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 about the Gospel itself. 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?” (For the complete version of Brian McLaren’s story see A New Kind of Christianity, 137-38.)

When I was here last month (Proper 10B), I highlighted proclamation from St. Paul that I believe is his version of Jesus’ Gospel: The kingdom of God is at hand. But for Paul, of course, the kingdom of God had already arrived. It had been launched on Easter morning when Jesus was raised from the dead. Early this summer, we read from 2 Corinthians 5 (vs. 17): “So for anyone in Christ: new creation! The old has passed away; the new has arrived!” Then — also five weeks ago — we looked ahead to Ephesians 2 that was to be read the following week. Again, it’s about something new being created because of Easter: “For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one . . . that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two” (Eph 2:14-15). God in Jesus is creating One New Humanity in place of all our divisions! In Eph 2 Paul uses ‘kingdom’ language by calling the Gentiles “citizens” of the commonwealth of Israel, members of God’s household. The Gentiles are no longer immigrants and strangers but citizens and members of the body politic. Since “Gentiles” was the Jewish designation for anyone who isn’t a Jew, that means God in Jesus is moving to unite the entire human family. One New Humanity in place of the two.

Brothers and sisters, how big is that! Don’t get me wrong, being held in God’s power of life when we die is still a big deal; but the Good News of Easter means so much more! Have we been losing our young people because we’ve over-focused on the afterlife? When they look around at the world right now, they see a huge mess because we human beings are so divided. We can’t get anything done faced with so many big challenges: a pandemic; the climate crisis; the rise of authoritarianism threatening our very democracy; an economy that doesn’t work for them the way it did for us, their parents and grandparents. Our young people face so many challenges, and we are seemingly gridlocked because of bitter division and rivalry. What if a basic part of our Christian message is that God in Jesus Christ is giving us a way to become One New Humanity?! What if you and I are called to help lead our fellow citizens to work together in solving the problems that face us?

You might respond:

‘But, Pastor Paul, it’s been two thousand years, and the divisions amongst the human family seems as bad as ever. How can anyone believe that God is creating One New Humanity?’

Well, if we followers of Jesus have been over-focused on the afterlife, then we’ve taken our eye off the ball and fumbled our part in this. (Forgive me, as I’m about to extend the football metaphor, but this is Packer country with the first preseason games kicking off this weekend.) One of the most important words in the Gospel of John is the word “send.” Jesus knows that bringing the human family together must be a team effort. He’s the coach who first sends his disciples directly, and then he sends the Holy Spirit as quarterback to continue guiding and helping us. But along the way we’ve lost some of the most important parts of our message, and so the Holy Spirit has been working like a quarterback without any receivers to throw to or running backs to hand the ball off to. People of God, the world needs us to get back into the game! And we need to be able to run all our plays, not just the one about the afterlife.

But we also need to know which plays work best, given the opposition. Who is the opposition? Jesus and the Bible name him as Satan, which was an old middle eastern title for the Accuser, the one who brings an accusation against the evil ones. In Mark’s Gospel, in a passage we read at the beginning of the summer, Jesus names this as “Satan casting out Satan,” keeping the human household forever divided against itself.

If we listen to Jesus on this, then we can read the story of sin in Genesis 3 correctly. We can see that the core of the sin was eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and falling right into Satan’s hands. We think we know how to distinguish good from evil, so we appoint ourselves to be the ones to cast them out. It is the oldest game in the books: We are the good guys whom God has appointed to get rid of the bad guys. We are on God’s side casting out the satanic. But Jesus names this play as the opposition’s favorite play — as Satan’s favorite play! To run this play we fall right into the trap of Satan. Jesus is telling us that sin begins with thinking we know god from evil so that we mistakenly think we are doing God’s work when we seek to violently cast out the bad people. The biggest result of this ‘play’ is that we are indeed a game of perpetual opposition. We can never achieve the game God wants for us, which is for all of us to come together and win together. In short, this is where the football analogy breaks down, since it is a game with two teams. Ephesians 2:15 is telling us that God’s game is to bring together the two teams into one. God is creating One New Humanity in place of the two.

Look around at our politics right now. Do you see this play of fingering the opposition all around us? Are we falling into the trap and playing along? Or are we being recruited to play on Jesus’ team and runs plays that are oriented around forgiveness, love, and healing, instead of the endless accusation and casting out that keeps us divided.

One more very important point from today’s Gospel Reading. It’s importance comes from actually backing Satan’s favorite play by sending the wrong message. This is a part of our playbook which is not only over-focusing on one play, the afterlife message. It’s about actually accepting and passing on the wrong message, Satan’s message. Here I need to finally leave the football metaphor behind and switch to the metaphor in the Gospel Reading, that of old-time ritual blood sacrifice. Jesus even gets gross in using the language of the most ancient form of sacrifice which includes cannibalism. “Feed upon my flesh, and drink my blood,” says Jesus. Gross!! With a capital G. Why is Jesus saying this? Because in the biblical journey, the old-time ritual blood sacrifice represent that game of putting all the sin onto one creature and killing them on an altar. It was a ritualized way of playing that Satanic game of thinking we know the evil ones and acting to violently get rid of them. It’s what the Jewish leaders and Pilate will do to Jesus on the cross!

Here, we need to end with seeing a part of the traditional Gospel message which goes beyond being an over-focus. It is flat out wrong. It is sometimes called Penal Substitution Atonement Theology. It has an imposing name that you might not be familiar with, but I’m betting the theology itself is very familiar to us. It goes something like this:

All human beings are sinful and therefore deserving God’s punishment of death, but kind and loving Jesus steps in to take the punishment for us, so that whoever believes in him is saved from that punishment.

What this thinking does is turn God the Father into the main practitioner of that old-time sacrificial logic! It was the ancient gods of sacrifice who demanded a ritual sacrifice — killing someone on an altar, and sometimes even eating them — as a substitute for punishing large groups of folks. Kill one, or a few, to save many. That was the old logic of sacrifice. Jesus came to save us from that Satanic thinking, and with our atonement theology of the cross we have fallen right back into it!

No!! God sent Jesus to expose that lie and to offer us something else: forgiveness, love, and healing. New creation! We are to be One New Humanity, coming together to face the challenges of life. We are called to leave behind the old game of sacrifice and its logic of playing out the satanic game of violently casting out or killing who we think are the evil ones.

When Jesus names our game of thinking we are on God’s team casting out the losers, when Jesus names this as “Satan casting out Satan,” he is also exposing are tragically mistaken theology. God is not in the game of accusing and punishing wrongdoers. God is in the game of forgiving and offering healing.

So that whole atonement theology we grew up with, that God means to punish us for sin, that whole way of thinking is wrong! It’s the theology behind ritual sacrifice which Jesus came to expose as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” He came to reveal to us a God of love and forgiveness who is working to heal our violent divisiveness, not add to it. We are being called to join the team which seeks a win-win result for all God’s children.

What do you think? Do you think this is a Gospel message for which our children and grandchildren can get on-board? Can you glimpse how our basic message is badly in need of a serious upgrade? Let’s come to the table of Jesus’ self-sacrifice — his body broken and his blood poured out for us — so that we may be fed for the mission of uniting the human family to work for life! Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, August 15, 2021

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