What's the News?

January 27, 2019

Series: January 2019

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Luke 4:14-21

14Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.

 What’s the News?

        Last week when leading the time of discovery with our young children I asked what seem a rather innocuous question.  The 3rd and 4th graders were going to be looking at the very passage you just heard, and I challenged them to learn what the content of this good news was and is.  We talk about good news all the time in church.  The word “gospel” just means good news, but how well do we know how Jesus talked about the good news?  My guess is if you asked most Christians what the good news is, or most non-Christians—which may be a more telling indicator of how well we have communicated the good news—my guess is if you asked people among the top answers, if not the top answer, would be some form of the following: if you believe in Jesus, because Jesus died for your sins, then you get to go to heaven.  This is how you are “saved.”  Maybe sprinkle something about being good in there for good measure.

          This notion of who is saved, who gets into heaven, and by extension who does not, is a sticking point or stumbling block for many Christians in churches such as this ours.  Perhaps you’ve come here to get away from that type of in and out thinking.  How could a loving God deny any of God’s children salvation? 

          It is worth exploring the evolution of the church’s thinking on this because it can lead us to a very different place, and a better understanding of the good news.  Brian Zahnd, author and founder of Word of Life, a non-denominational congregation in Missouri summarizes well a monumental shift that took place in Christianity over the course of history.  Zahnd reminds us that the early church maintained a bold and consistently anti-empire message, meaning it challenged power and how it was used to dominate, exploit, and coerce people.  Early Christianity called out how earthly rulers made themselves the subject of worship.  He says this went on,

…until it [the church] became the empire and everything had to change and that’s when you see a shift in theology, so that it becomes much more afterlife-oriented because now we can’t really critique empire, we can’t really boldly advocate a new society upon earth because we have our society—it’s called empire.  But we [also] can’t get rid of Jesus.  After all, we are Christians.  We have to give him something to do, so Jesus is removed from actually being Lord – we still maintain the vernacular.  We call him “Lord” but we don’t mean…he’s running the scene politically.  We give him a new title.  He becomes “The Secretary of Afterlife Affairs.”  His job is to get us into heaven when we die.  Thank you very much Jesus, now we will continue to run the show politically…[1]

           It’s easy to see how this would happen.  It’s not necessarily insidious.  It can happen subconsciously.  Once Christianity is in charge, it becomes far less interested in the portions of the tradition that held those in charge accountable.  Of course, history shows us what happened when the church lost its focus on accountability for the powerful.  If there is good news in the decline of the church in the world’s power centers, it is that Christianity is in those places reclaiming it’s authentic and prophetic voice because.  Quite literally, the church now has less to lose.  It has less of its own power to protect and therefore it can turn its attention back to restoring and protecting the power of the most powerless in our midst.

Notice how Jesus himself actual spoke about the good news.  In today’s reading he quotes the prophet Isaiah, saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor” (Lk. 4:18-19).  None of that concerns the afterlife.  Quite the contrary.  It’s about present, worldly conditions.  Why would Jesus say his good news was for the poor if it wasn’t somehow about addressing their poverty?  Why would he say the Scripture is fulfilled in their hearing, if he wasn’t signaling a new way was being ushered in at that moment?  Because he was promising heaven after they day?  Then, why would he announce the year of the Lord’s favor? 

The year of the Lord’s favor is a critical phrase and it points to the heart of the matter, and the heart of Jesus.  The year of the Lord’s favor refers to the jubilee, the Jewish notion that periodically debts were to be forgiven, land returned to its owners, the enslaved free, a radical reorganization of society.  Not a word about heaven.  He’s talking about the distribution of resources, what we might call economic justice.  And, this is not the only time he does so.  Remember when someone approaches Jesus and asks him what they have to do to inherit eternal life.  Do you remember how Jesus responds?  Keep the commandments and go sell all you have and give the money to the poor (Lk. 18:22).  The person wants life in heaven.  Jesus gives him a lesson in economic redistribution, how to be a part of healing life on earth.  Some would say we’ve been taught to focus on heaven so we don’t ask inconvenient questions about the injustices that reign on earth.

Jesus’ worldly focus would be totally in keeping with his Jewish heritage.  As the Franciscan Richard Rohr points out the Scriptures for Jesus, which included writings such as Isaiah, were entirely concerned with this life.  That was his world.  Christians tend to talk about salvation as individual wellbeing for eternity.  Salvation to them meant wellbeing in the here and now for the community.  In fact, the notion that some in the community could have salvation while others not would have been totally foreign to them.  Rohr says that Jesus saves us the same way God does, by making us liberated, free, whole, and happy here and now.[2] 

Does this mean Jesus didn’t believe in heaven or that we shouldn’t?  “Certainly not,” says Rohr, who is adamant about his belief in eternal life.  “I’m not questioning that at all,” says Rohr, “I’m not doubting that.  That’s my belief in the resurrection…” He simply says that when you make all of Scripture about an entrance exam to the afterlife, you not only miss the point, you commit nothing short of heresy because you have overlooked 3/4 if not 7/8 of the Bible.  Rohr calls it “antiseptic Christianity,” because it scrubs clean the majority of the biblical witness, which is about doing the dirty work of making way for God’s kingdom, God’s reign, God’s shalom, God’s way to be enacted here and how, just as Jesus taught us to pray and we do whenever we worship, “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”[3] Good theology calls us to help usher in heaven on earth, not spend life trying to graduate from earth to heaven.

We do not relegate the work of ushering in heaven to God.  Referring to the very passage we read today, Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities, says, “when we announce the good news to the poor, it is not to tell them Jesus loves them, but rather to say, ‘I love you and I commit myself to you in the name of Jesus.’ ”[4]  What makes us think the poor don’t know of Jesus’ or God’s love?  What seems to be in question is everyone else’s love for them in this culture which seems to deride and blame the poor and the alien for where they find themselves.  No, what others need to know is that we love them, and that is borne out not in sentimental expressions, but in helping order life in a way that embodies love in both personal and systemic ways, the latter we call justice.  Shane Claiborne puts this in pressingly present terms.  He writes, “When I ask God why all of these injustices are allowed to exist in the world, I can feel the Spirit whisper to me, ‘You tell me why we allow this to happen.  You are my body, my hands, my feet.”[5]

It’s interesting that when you start talking about justice in the church, some people get nervous.  Some people get resistant.  Nobody has a problem with charity, but justice is a different story…and it is.  As Mark Sandlin, Presbyterian pastor in Greensboro, North Carolina, puts it, “charity is love in the present, justice is love extended into the future.”  Sandlin, who has a degree in business administration calls justice “love with a strategy.”[6] Charity is unthreatening because it doesn’t question the way things are; it just tries and alleviates immediate suffering, and there is a place for that, an important one.  Jesus, however, also calls us to justice, love with a strategy, love that asks why the conditions exist that create the demand for charity.  “How do we know what justice is?” we might ask.  Ask those on the bottom.  It’s quite clear to them.   

Just as there are those who want to make the faith about love without concern for justice, there are those who seem to forget that justice must be borne out of and enacted as love.  Justice work must be about love.  We mustn’t forget that.  So often, well-intended justice work, which may understandably arise from our anger at the way things are never grows up out of it and the result is hatred.  Hatred cannot give birth to salvation.  Surely, we’ve seen this, people undercutting the effectiveness of their own message because of the way they deliver it.  If it’s grounded in love—which is not to be confused with weakness—a call for justice still may be faced with opposition, with ignorance, with ugliness, but it will retain its integrity, and therefore its anointing.  I know for a fact you all faced opposition external and internal when you chose to include people in the full life of the church regardless of sexual orientation and identity, but that doesn’t mean it was the wrong thing to do because you discerned together that this is what it mean to follow Jesus in the late 20th century.    

          In the end, Zahnd makes what he says himself is a ridiculous claim, and it’s the oldest and perhaps most oft-repeated claim of the tradition, though I think we’ve often forgotten what it means—and progressives maybe were the fastest to jettison it, though it’s high time we reclaim it:  Jesus is Lord.  “That’s my politics,” says Zahnd. “He’s not Lord-elect.  He’s not going to be Lord someday.  He is Lord now.”[7]  Everything falls in line around that reality, around that vision of what reality should look like not only one day but now.

          I began by talking about the children, asking them about the good news.  When we look at a child with loving eyes, it’s hard to imagine that God would deny that child salvation in the next life.  Let us not then deny any of God’s children salvation in this one.  Let us couple our commitment to charity with that to justice, love with a strategy.  Let us make that our work not only as private citizens but as our calling as a church.  Amen.

[1] https://www.theworkofthepeople.com/war-prayer

[2] https://www.theworkofthepeople.com/antiseptic-christianity

[3] https://www.theworkofthepeople.com/antiseptic-christianity

[4] John Vanier, The Gospel of John:  The Gospel of Relationship Audiobook.

[5] Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution:  Living as an Ordinary Radical.

[6] Sandlin via Twitter.

[7] https://www.theworkofthepeople.com/war-prayer