Proper 21B Sermon Notes (2018)

SERMON NOTES — September 23, 2018
Proper 21B (One week earlier, swapping places with Proper 20B)

Summary of the New Reformation:

  • The Good News is that God on Easter has graciously launched a new age of bringing the whole Creation to fulfillment.
  • Jesus’s resurrection promises a fulfillment of life and that all people will someday have a resurrection body like Jesus.
  • In the meantime, God pours out the Holy Spirit so that we are called and empowered to participate in God’s project.
  • For human beings God’s new age means the healing of our sin of tribalism — creating one new humanity out of two (Eph. 2).
  • It means nonviolently standing against the powers of sacred violence behind tribalism: the sacrificial thinking and practice in which we the ‘good’ people are casting out them the ‘bad’ people.
  • It means a justice focused on healing much more than on punishment; a justice that focuses on those most vulnerable to being cast out or let loose (the poor, the outsider, the rejected, etc.).
  • It means forming new communities which sacramentally represent the healing of tribalism that is underway for the whole human family. These new communities live by a politics of God’s justice and loving service.

We grew up with a Good News that is not all wrong but is small compared to the Good News of the New Testament read in light of the New Reformation. We grew up with the Good News of ‘believers’ going to heaven when we die, which is small in the context of a renewal of the entire Creation. It is not all wrong . . . but it is wrong to the extent that it represents the ultimate, eternal tribalism, one that forever divides believers from unbelievers, those who go to heaven from those who go to “hell.”

Today, our Gospel Reading gives us the greatest density of Jesus talking about “hell” — three times in four verses. It is essential for us to unlearn our traditional version of “hell” and relearn Jesus’ version.

  • Our traditional version: hell is an otherworldly place where God eternally punishes those who don’t believe in Jesus. This must be strongly rejected as the epitome of the tribalism Jesus came to heal!!
  • Jesus’ version of “hell” uses a this-world place (the valley of ben Hinnom, “Gehenna” in the Greek) as a metaphor for the terrible places that are perpetually created by our tribalism. Auschwitz or Hiroshima would be ideal modern equivalents for what Jesus meant by Gehenna, “hell.”

The place that Jesus uses as a metaphor is the valley of ben Hinnom (ben being the Hebrew word for “son”). The Greek rendering of ben Hinnom is Gehenna, which our contemporary English translations misleading render as “hell,” a word and idea with far too much baggage.

Why ben Hinnom, or Gehenna, as a metaphoric place of terrible fires? It was an infamous place for the Jews of the ugliest of all sacrificial practices: child sacrifice. Here’s a vivid example:

For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the LORD; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. 31And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire — which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. 32Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter. . . . (Jeremiah 7:30-32)

The child sacrifice at ben Hinnom is also mentioned at 2 Chronicles 28:3 and 33:6; Jeremiah 19:1-6; 32:35 — five places altogether in the OT.

So what is Jesus saying in today’s Gospel Reading? If you are on a trajectory to the worst forms of sacrificial practice, such as child sacrifice, it is better to try to stem the tide with a lesser form of sacrifice — cutting off your own hand is better than ending up with child sacrifice. With our Auschwitz example, we might say that Allied bombing of Berlin is better than letting Auschwitz continue.

But ultimately we are called to stem the tide of sacrifice more completely. Here’s a passage from the other place where Jesus talks about “hell”: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

How do we stop from even being angry?! The crucial role for prayer in following Jesus, especially silent prayer, or what is called today things like “meditation,” mindfulness,” or “contemplative prayer.” It is learning to detach from our usual thinking of good-bad, us-them.

Paul Nuechterlein
Lutheran Church of the Savior
Kalamazoo, MI

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