17th Sunday after Pentecost
September 16, 2018

17th Sunday after Pentecost

Passage: Isaiah 50:4-9a

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I find it shocking that Christianity ever made it off the ground in the first place. I mean, if you think about it, we’re following a Jesus who says some rather disturbing things like,

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it (Mark 8:34-35).

And this isn’t an anomaly. Jesus says this kind of stuff all the time, so frequently – in fact – that he just might have meant it.

So how is it that the church exists at all if the Jesus we claim to follow describes discipleship with such extreme language? language so costly that we have trouble even coming up with examples of people we know who take it seriously. Take up your cross. Lose your life. Who does that?

(Just to be clear, this probably isn’t going to be the fuzziest sermon you’ve ever heard me preach. But also in the spirit of transparency, I’m preaching just as much to myself as to you. Don’t think I didn’t hear James’ warning this morning: “Not many of you should become teachers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1)).

The Kingdom of God that Jesus describes is beautiful, but it’s also terrifying, because it always requires letting go of our own security and smugness in exchange for a compassionate and generous posture towards everyone else, even so far as our enemies. And as attractive as that sounds by principle – we all know how hard it is in practice.

So to our shame, we tend to embrace all the nice bits about the gospel – how God loves us. But then we treat all the “this is what it looks like to follow Jesus” bits as more of a recommendation that’s not really “required reading” to pass the course.

And part of the way the church has done this over the centuries is to focus all our energy on Atonement Theology. That’s the branch of theology that tries to explain how the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus “atoned for our sins” (forgave our sins) and released us from hell. ‘Cause at the end of the day we want to know, “Is there a way for me not to follow the way of Jesus, but still get to heaven?” And the resounding answer of the church has been, “Yes! So long as you subscribe to our version of Christianity.” And so we’ve gone round and round about what that right version is and what you need to do or believe to make Jesus’ forgiveness stick:

  • You’ve got to be baptized.
  • You’ve got to be baptized in our tradition.
  • You need to believe in the right set of doctrine.
  • You’ve got to say the “Believer’s Prayer.” (That’s what I was raised with: Confess that you’re a sinner; ask Jesus to forgive your sins and come into your heart, and you’re covered. Now go out and convince other people to say the same prayer.)
  • Previous generations had more severe methods of getting Jesus to forgive you (indulgences and hair shirts and whatnot).

 

It’s awful! The history of Christianity has, in many ways, been characterized by our ongoing bickering to ensure that our atonement theology was the right one, so that when we fail to take Jesus seriously at his word, we still get our mansion in the sky.

It really is shameful. And you know what’s so egregious about it all? In the end it’s still just so self-centered. It’s still all about our own self-preservation. And this of a people who claim to follow a Jesus who laid down his life and asked us to do the same.

Now I know it’s our reptilian brain at work; I know it’s impossible not to seek our own survival. And please hear me, I do take atonement theology seriously. I do believe that Jesus is saving us from our sins. But salvation is so much more than a destination for our souls once we’re dead. We are saved now, to begin living now, in the pattern and likeness of Christ.

We’ve been so obsessed in the western church with our anxiety about atonement theology (“Am I saved?”), that we’re missing the joy – and quite often, the point – about what it means to be a Christian. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, they’ve followed a radically different tract. Their attention is on the theology of theosis or “divinization”that is, “How do we become like God?” In their tradition, “the supreme goal of human life and the very meaning of salvation is to experience real and transformative union with God.”[1] Because that’s what we’ve been saved to! That’s what we’re after!

So how much better it would be for us as a church if we were to uphold a spectacular vision of what the Kingdom of God is all about and admit:

Yeah – we’re nowhere close to that! But isn’t it fabulous? And that’s what we want!

It’d be so much more freeing! so much more exciting, so encouraging, if we could stop defending our mediocrity, confess it for what it is, then turn our hope and desire and intent towards the glory of the Kingdom of God .

Let’s just be honest with where we are and earnest in our desire to become more like God:

  • Maybe you had a difficult childhood. Okay. But it’s time to stop complaining about what you experienced and simply admit, “My childhood was really hard and I confess that I am a bitter person. But I’d like to forgive them, like God does.”
  • Do you shop too much and hoard too much stuff? Maybe it’s time to admit, “I’m a really selfish person. But I wish I were generous, like God is. So I’m going to do something generous today.”
  • When you hear people of color complaining about the inequality of their experience in our country, is your automatic reaction always to dismiss the legitimacy of their complaints? Maybe’s it’s time to let down our guard and simply confess that we’re a bit racist. And then determine to become a little curious about what it’s actually like to be something other than a white American.

In whatever way we are not like Jesus, let’s just admit the reality of our condition, receive God’s compassion in our brokenness, and then set our faces towards the real Jesus we want to resemble.

This is what we should be doing as a church: coming together week after week to restore our vision of what Kingdom of God is truly like, and then supporting one another, arm in arm, in our common journey towards that likeness.

But here’s the difficulty in being the church. It’s really easy to get distracted by the daily grind of just maintaining the institution: paying the bills, getting people to show up, convincing people to teach Sunday School or host the potluck. And when the church gets stuck in that cycle of existing just to keep itself existing, then something truly is out of whack.

But you know, that’s not to say that the institutionality of the church is all bad. I’ve had to make my peace with it. We are human, after all. And humans make culture. And culture makes institutions. That’s what allows us to function as a community. So the space we share in this building, the language we use in the liturgy, the organizational structures we develop – they’re all necessary. I don’t begrudge the institution of the church, so long as it fosters the mission of the church: that we may become like Christ in this world.

And that’s what we’ve been praying this past year, “God, help us to be more like Jesus.”

This morning when you arrived, the ushers handed you this piece of paper that summarizes St. John’s mission plans for 2019. It’s not comprehensive. It doesn’t include all the bits we’re already doing and will keep on doing. But it does show the areas we’d like to develop in the year to come.

Some of them feel very institutional, like the section entitled, “Organizational Development.” That sounds awfully dull, I admit. But the spirit behind it is this recognition that some of our ministry teams need better structures that can welcome more parishioners to participate in ways that are meaningful and life-giving – both for them and for the world around them.

Likewise, in addition to our Annual Fund Drive this fall, we’re going to have a modest capital campaign next year because there are a handful of things in our building that simply have to be dealt with; we can’t keep putting them off. Unto itself, the building has no particular value. But the building has ultimate value as the venue that gathers us together and fosters our becoming the people of God.

But we also want to grow beyond the confines of being just our parish. So the third focus will be enlarging our concept of what it means to be the Body of Christ: we are part of the Diocese of Olympia, we are in partnership with other local churches as the Church in Gig Harbor, and we are partners with other organizations – Christian or not, like FISH foodbank or Alcoholic Anonymous – that are doing the work of the Kingdom of God.

And finally, the fourth mission priority next year will be to devote 3 percent of our budget directly towards outreach. That will mean about $12,000. As followers of Jesus, care of the poor must always be a priority, even when it comes to choosing a more modest lifestyle for ourselves. Just as we ask all of you to give to the church, so the church must give to alleviate the suffering of the poor and the powerless.

So I encourage you to read this more fully (after church!). And we’ll be talking about it in more detail in the next couple months.

But the first step is honestly to answer the question, “Are you ready for more? more compassion, more faith, more of God in our lives.” Several years ago Lauretta White asked me how she should be praying for St. John’s. I asked her to pray that we would desire God more. And for many years that’s what she prayed. But now Lauretta has been dead for nearly a year. I don’t know if she’s still praying or how that all works. But it’s safe to say that we need to pick up the mantle that she left for us – that her prayer would be our prayer – and that we would desire God more and be willing to lose our lives, in order to take up the life of Christ in this world.

 

[1] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, Sept. 12, 2018