Easter 7C Sermon (2010)

7th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 17:20-26;
Acts 16:16-34


A number of you last week asked if I had seen the newspaper column about Brian McLaren in last Saturday’s Kalamazoo Gazette. I hadn’t yet. I needed to search out a copy, and did. Well, the writer of the copy went more for the controversy than the truth. Big surprise, heh?

I ended up writing a letter to the editor, saying that I think it was irresponsible to print such falsehoods. But the importance of the issues brought up in the column go far beyond what I think was sloppy journalism. For the columnist chose to quote a critic of McLaren who said that McLaren’s brand of Christianity “is the same kind of ‘Christianity’ that colluded, went along with, Hitler’s program in Germany. Leading theologians in that era of Germany regarded the Bible and history of the Christian faith in the same way as Brian McLaren does, which is: ‘This is outdated. Let’s replace it with something up-to-date.’”

First of all, this is a gross misrepresentation of McLaren’s faith. He’s not about saying, ‘This is outdated. Let’s replace it with something up-to-date.’ He’s about saying something like, ‘Our version of the faith has gotten way off-track. Let’s replace it with something more faithful.’ In fact, even though McLaren’s critic is so far off-base about McLaren himself, he’s dead-on with what’s at issue here. Clearly, the Christianity that was in place in Germany in the 20’s and 30’s, as Hitler came to power, wasn’t up to the task of stopping Hitler. There was something seriously wrong with it, such that they let Hitler come to power without any great resistance. The church led by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others, called the “Confessing Church,” was too small in numbers to make a difference.

Seventy-five years later we want to make sure that our version of the Christian faith is faithful in such a way as to stand up and be counted when injustice rears its ugly head. Our version of the faith needs to make sure that something like Nazi Germany never happens again in a so-called ‘Christian’ nation. And to say that the average German Christian had been following a version of the Christian faith that saw itself as replacing something outdated is to risk missing the point. The leading Nazi resisters like Bonhoeffer didn’t see themselves as replacing an outdated Christianity. They saw themselves as calling for a faith version of the Christian faith, one which gets back on track with the call for standing up for justice. His Letters and Papers from Prison [Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 8], which I held up last week, is quite radical in its call to be faithful, in a way that does look quite different from the version of Christianity popular in Germany in that time. And Bonhoeffer’s theology is quite remarkable in the way that it anticipates someone like McLaren. It calls us to get back to mission. It calls us to get out of our fixation on the fate of individual souls in eternity for making a difference in God’s beloved creation in history. It calls us Christians to be more Jewish again in our hope for God to save not just human souls but the whole history of creation. The German Christians who let Hitler come to power were so fixated on the after-life that they let something horrific take place in this life right under their noses. Brian McLaren is precisely the kind of person who is calling us not to make the same mistake by calling us to the Good News of God’s justice in Jesus Christ.

It’s the kind of justice that Paul and Silas get in trouble for in our story from Acts this morning. Paul and Silas didn’t get thrown into jail for nothing. They were jailed for the same reason Dietrich Bonhoeffer was thrown in jail, or Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, Jr. They stood for a justice that was very much about God’s justice lived out in this world in ways that stand against many human forms of justice. Human justice so often-times, especially when the community is under any kind of crisis, resorts to a unity based on blaming someone else. Paul and Silas were bringing healing, but the local folks in Philippi were able to turn that into blame of the outsiders.

Hitler brought Germans together by blaming their Jewish neighbors as outsiders. In this time of economic crisis in the United States, are we banding together to be united on the basis of blaming any outsiders? The God of the Bible — both the Old Testament prophets and the Jesus who became the Lamb of God — the God the Bible was found to stand with those blamed as outsiders. The most often quoted verse from the Old Testament in the New Testament is from the Easter Day Psalm, Psalm 118: “The stone which the builders rejected has become our chief cornerstone.” The writers of the New Testament saw this in the way Jesus stood in solidarity with the least, the lost, and the left-out. Those whom human justice ordinarily and routinely reject becomes the cornerstone of the community God is building in justice. The only way to achieve a unity that really lasts is by not leaving anyone out. That means beginning with those most commonly left out: the poor, the foreigner, the diseased. Jesus regularly messed with our way of justice so that it got him killed. In today’s First Lesson, we see Paul and Silas beginning down that same track.

And let’s be clear about one thing: the most common way of human rebellion against human injustice is to simply turn the tables: in other words, those in power who leave folks out must be overthrown so that they can be left out. Jesus does not come with that brand of justice either. He comes with one that is wholly and completely about love, one that is wholly and completely about healing and life. So Paul’s and Silas’ great crime is not a politics of overthrowing those in power. It’s a politics of healing, a politics of even including their jailer in God’s salvation. We often focus on Paul and Silas being more free as prisoners than their jailer is. But let’s not miss the really Good News, namely, that their jailer is included in God’s love just as surely as those jailed.

Let me finish with one example that brings back the theme with which we began, what brand of Christianity it would have taken to stop Hitler and the Nazi movement. There was one moment within Germany itself where we glimpse this kind of Christian faith, but it showed itself not in correct confession of belief but in faithful action according to God’s justice.

In February 1943…. [relate the story of the nonviolent demonstration at Rosenstrasse in Berlin, which succeeded in having the Nazis release Jewish husbands of Gentile wives; see, for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosenstrasse_protest]

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, May 16, 2010

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