Proper 20B Sermon (2021)

Proper 20 (September 18-24)
Texts: Mark 9:30-37;
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a


As we slowly move beyond the pandemic — still with some anxieties about the divisive politics which seem to make matters worse — churches have their own worries. Our numbers were already shrinking before COVID closed us down to the point of being virtual online communities. As we cautiously begin to gather in person again, will everyone return? Add to that a pastoral transition like here at Ascension, and the Mission Exploration process will carry extra importance for the future. There are many tough questions and issues to face in the weeks and months ahead.

So the question is, What might bring hope for the future of the church? For the future of congregations in transition like Ascension, and for the wider church? A mainstay in our Greater Milwaukee Synod for helping congregations to move into the future has been the Mission Exploration process. I first came to this synod in the 90’s, and the Mission Exploration process was just getting underway as an emphasis in renewing the church — brought into the life of all congregations but especially those in transition. It introduced to many of us an emphasis of looking beyond our walls to the neighborhoods beyond, asking, “What are the needs of folks in our neighborhood that we might address in renewing and revitalizing our mission?”

For a number of years we have been betting that revitalized mission brings hope, not just to members of our churches but also to the neighborhoods we’re in. I think that Ascension has been a good model in focusing on mission. Your congregation has expanded by bringing Christian service and mission to this neighborhood, reflected in the fact that you now have worship services representing three cultures and languages. Your Mission Exploration process will no doubt include extending and deepening what you have been doing successfully for a number of years. In terms of our Gospel Reading today, you have been truly been welcoming to the children and to the most vulnerable in your community. In your mission, Ascension has helped bring greater hope to this community.

I would like to suggest another way of increasing hope for the church to complement renewed mission. And that’s a renewal of our message . . . to better go along with our mission. I have come to believe that the church is in need of nothing less than a revitalization of its Gospel message. For Lutherans, and for Protestants in general, I’m convinced that this means going beyond our five hundred year-old articulation of the Gospel taken from St. Paul, especially his letters to the Romans and Galatians — namely, “justification by grace through faith.” In recent years, New Testament scholars have been questioning whether this is even Paul’s best articulation of the Gospel — much less Jesus himself, who never really used the words “justification by grace through faith.”

I have a friend Brian McLaren, a Christian author and teacher who writes about these vital questions for the church, who 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 he asked Brian, “What was the gospel according to Jesus?” A little humiliated, Brian mumbled something like, “You tell me,” to which his friend 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.)

Here’s the thing: I think we can still go to Paul for wonderful articulations of the Gospel, but we need to first of all look for the kingdom language of Jesus — something that rings out a Gospel that is more than about the justification of sinners, especially in the individualistic sense in which we’ve tended to read that. The Gospel is more than about individuals. It’s about God coming to reign in Creation in ways that begin to free and liberate and make to flourish all of God’s good creation.

For that we can begin looking in other places in Paul for his version of Jesus’ Gospel: The kingdom of God is at hand. 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 in mid-summer we read again about something new being created because of Easter from Ephesians 2: “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). Which addresses what? Things like our broken politics right now — everywhere you look — affecting even things like trying to endure a global pandemic. Here is Paul proclaiming two thousand years ago that God in Jesus Christ is creating One New Humanity in place of all our divisions! That’s what this Good News is about! 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.

How does that ring in your ears as a message that goes along with our mission? You have been living into that message and mission by bringing together the peoples of various cultures and languages in this neighborhood. In the language of the letter we’re reading from now, the Letter of James, you’ve been doers of the word and not hearers only.

What I want to propose to you this morning is that the Gospel is about nothing less than a renewal of what it means to be human. Haven’t we tended to make the Gospel more about the afterlife, than about this life? God justifies individual sinners by grace through faith so that they can go to heaven when they die. But what about the rest of creation, which God created good but was corrupted by our sin? Did God send Jesus only for some sinners to enter the afterlife and not for the Creation itself to be set right from our sin? And what about our sin? Is there any sense in which we are able to live into being saints in this life? Not just the afterlife? Do you see? Yes, we’re sinners. But as Luther correctly put the matter, we’re sinners and saints at the same time. How do we meaningfully begin to live into our saintliness? With a ministry of reconciliation that begins to heal our way of being human bent on divisiveness.

Our Gospel message has become way too narrow. If we look to other places in Paul we find plenty of language about New Creation and about things like One New Humanity in place of all out divisiveness. Based on what Paul says in Ephesians 2 about the Gospel message and its real affects in reconciling divided humanity, he also has a lot to say about our mission in subsequent chapters. Our synod is currently embarking on renewed mission under the banner of Ephesians 4:12: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. . . .” We are hoping to better equip ourselves for ministries that enhance the lives of people in our parishes and neighborhoods — for this life and not just the afterlife. We are hoping especially to follow Jesus in reaching out to the most vulnerable, as he models for us this morning by welcoming the children.

Welcoming the children. I’d like to close by addressing what perhaps is the elephant in the room. There aren’t any children right here this morning with us. It’s become a problem, unfortunately, in our still mostly white European congregations that we seemingly are no longer welcoming to our own children and grandchildren. I ask myself even as a pastor, “Where are my children and grandchildren? Why are they no longer coming to church” They are the group most missing in our churches — the younger generation.

And I’m not about to make this into an either-or scenario. It should be a both-and scenario, right? We can welcome the children in our own neighborhoods to church but also be welcoming to our own children. Right? Why have our children and grandchildren been leaving?

I think it’s because our message has become stale and no longer really supports the renewed mission we’ve undertaken. Our children and grandchildren look around at our broken world, in which we are now all facing global crises like pandemics and climate change. They look at economic injustice, especially for their generation. They look at the rise of authoritarianism in our politics, threatening our very democracy as the pathway to the common good. They look at these kinds of crises and hear others outside the church offering better messages that fit their mission of addressing such things in the hear and now (Bernie Sanders, for example).

What I’m putting before us today is having a message that fits our mission in the here and now. Is the Good News only about the afterlife? Or how do we proclaim things like the reign of God coming into the world at Easter, things like New Creation, things like God creating One New Humanity in place of the two and healing our divisiveness — how do we proclaim the Gospel message in a way that fits our renewed sense of mission? Has our message been up to our mission? Can we articulate the Good News in ways that our children and grandchildren say, “Yea, that fits what you’re doing in the neighborhood. We want to be part of that, too.” Can we revitalize our message to be about more than just what happens to us when we die — though it’s certainly about that comfort, too — but also about making life to flourish for all of God’s children in the hear and now. About making the world a better place for everyone. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Ascension Lutheran Church,
Milwaukee, WI, September 19, 2021

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