Updated: Aug 4, 2019
Last Tuesday evening, the Mission Study Team met, as it has done nearly every week since April. The Mission Study Team’s task is to create a document that the pastor nominating committee will use to create what’s basically the church’s resumé. The Mission Study says, “This is who we are. This is what’s important to us. This is what we strive to become.” This description of who we are and what we hope to become lets potential pastors know whether they’d be a good fit for us, and vice versa.
So on Tuesday evening, the Mission Study Team noted that over 80% of you responded on the survey that one of the things you value most about this church is the sense of community. But, the team wondered, why this community? After all, you can find community many places: your kid’s soccer team or the school PTA, Rotary or Al-Anon, your golfing buddies or your quilting club. We talked about the fact that church provides people with a sense of purpose, but you can find purpose with any charity or even at work. What church provides, what any good religion provides, is a combination of purpose and meaning, and both of them, the meaning and the purpose, point to the ultimate meaning and purpose of God, our Creator, “whom alone we worship and serve.”
The meaning and purpose of the church is what we will explore over the next six Sundays, in our series on what the Presbyterian Book of Order calls the Great Ends of the Church. All six are listed on your bulletin cover. I learned this past week that the pastor who served this church before me, Chandler Stokes, preached a series on the Six Great Ends of the Church in 2003, just before he left. So maybe this is our signature “pastor’s farewell sermon series.” When I was a teenager, I had a friend whose father always said the same thing when she left the house to go to a party or out on a date. He said, “Remember who you are.” I’m guessing that is what Chandler Stokes was trying to say to you in 2003, and it is certainly what I am saying now. Remember who you are.
Today we begin with the first Great End, “the proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind.” That’s a string of theological words, words we don’t use in normal conversation. We need to define them, because they may not mean what you think they mean, and it makes a big difference what we think they mean. Except we’ll work backwards, starting with “salvation.”
When we hear the question, “Are you saved?” it usually means, “Are you sure you’ll go to heaven when you die?” More often than not, people assume the answer depends on whether you hold the correct beliefs, and that the people with correct beliefs will be “saved” and go to heaven while everyone else will go to Hell. Behind all this is a complex set of doctrines developed centuries after Jesus and the early church, a theology that says, basically, the human soul is separate from the human body, and our souls need to be saved, individually, from an angry God, because of our “original sin” or “total depravity.” Now, that isn’t the God that Jesus described, or the God Scripture describes generally, or the way Scripture describes human nature. How we ended up with these doctrines is fascinating and complicated; the question that fascinates me most is, “Who is it that benefits from terrorizing people with eternal damnation?” but that’s not the topic of today’s sermon. The point I want to make is that these doctrines don’t use the word “salvation” the way Scripture uses it. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?,” wrote the psalmist. “God alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.” When we see the word “salvation” or “save” used in the Hebrew Scriptures or by Jesus and even Paul, they aren’t talking about the afterlife, but about the present moment. They are trusting God to rescue them, restore them, deliver them, or heal them. Now. The word “salvation” comes from the same Latin root as the words for healing. Save us, heal us, here and now.
What do we need saving from now, if not hell? If we look around, even without original sin, we can see that we humans have made a mess; we are in desperate trouble. Brian McLaren describes our civilization as a kind of suicide machine. Our system of seeking prosperity tells us economic growth is always good, happiness comes from owning and using more, winners and losers are inevitable and natural, and corporations need only be accountable to the bottom line. “We act as though the resources we consume are infinite, and the wastes we deposit are invisible.” We don’t see this clearly enough because we only measure how well we’re doing by Gross National Product or the stock market, which tell us a lot about how things are going for the one percent. In the meantime, family farms are disappearing, migrant farmworkers are suffering, systemic and even blatant racism continues, there’s an opioid crisis and an immigration crisis, minimum wage earners need two or three jobs just to make ends meet, the middle class is disappearing, normal people can no longer afford to live in Marin County, California keeps burning and the ice caps are melting.
In other words, we need help. We need saving.
Did Jesus really come to save us from all that? Jesus’ context was the Roman Empire, which bore an uncanny resemblance to our world today in the way that it was great for business, great for everyone, really – well, except slaves, servants, tenant farmers and women, and those who lived near the borders, where there were ongoing skirmishes trying to keep people out. It was into this context that Jesus brought “good news” – our next term in this first Great End of the Church. We are to proclaim the gospel, and “gospel” means, literally, “good news.” When Jesus introduces his ministry in the verses we read this morning in Chapter 1 of Mark, he’s speaking to Judeans. The Judeans were a little colonized nation with an ancient backstory, an understanding of themselves as God’s people. God had delivered them and would continue to deliver them from slavery and injustice, just as Mary sings in this morning’s Luke passage, known as the Magnificat. This backstory means the Judeans refuse to be tamed by the Roman imperial story. So Jesus bursts on the scene with this scandalous message: “The time has come! Rethink everything! A radically new kind of empire is available – the Kingdom of God has arrived! Believe this good news, and defect from all human imperial kingdoms. Open your minds and hearts like children to see things freshly in this new way, follow me and my words, and enter this new way of living.”
The Kingdom of God was Jesus’ primary metaphor for what the world would be like if we lived according to God’s will for us, God’s hopes and desires for us and for all creation. Could this good news, could living into this Kingdom of God, “save” us from our current mess, from our “suicide machine”? Just imagine if we followed, if we practiced these teachings of Jesus:
· Don’t get revenge when you’re wronged, but seek reconciliation.
· Don’t repay violence with violence, but seek creative nonviolent alternatives.
· Don’t focus on conforming to moral rules, but on how love changes us from the inside out.
· Don’t love insiders and hate or fear outsiders, but welcome outsiders into a new “us,” a new humanity.
· Don’t have anxiety about money or security, but trust yourself to the care of God.
· Don’t live for wealth, but for the living God who loves all people, including your enemies.
· Don’t hate your enemies or competitors, but love them and do to them not as they have done to you, but as you wish they would do for you.
Wouldn’t it save us all if we lived like that? My deepest faith is that this good news is true. We often mix up the word “faith” and the word “belief,” and it’s made trickier by the fact that our Bible translates Jesus’ words in Mark as, “Believe the good news.” A better translation might be “trust” or “have faith.” “Beliefs” are like the doctrine about who goes to heaven. Faith, on the other hand, is something you trust enough to stake your life on it. I trust that the most important thing about God is that God so loves the whole world, that this good news, the good news of the Kingdom of God, has come near, is available now, and will save God’s world.
The first Great End of the Church says we are to “proclaim” this good news. “Proclaim,” again, is not a word we use every day. It points to something public, something deserving special emphasis. Proclaim doesn’t mean “convert,” or “evangelize.” But – why would we not make public, give special emphasis to, treat as important the good news that could save the entire world, the entire planet even, regardless of people’s faith or religion or any other condition?
How does the church proclaim the good news? St. Francis of Assisi’s most famous quotation is “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” It’s a wonderful quotation, and really perfect for Presbyterians, but unfortunately he didn’t say it. I think he’d agree with it, however; his life revealed a deep commitment to embodying the good news of God’s grace-filled love. Nothing we can say means anything if we don’t live it and act on it. Jesus saved his worst diatribes for hypocrites.
But there is a place for words, and a time for speaking up. One place we speak up is right here. We proclaim Jesus’ good news here, week in and week out, with the one goal of forming Christ-like people, people who live in the way of love, the way of the kingdom of God, the way of Jesus, the way of the Spirit. We do it not only in sermons but in our hymns and liturgy, in our rituals and symbols, in our Sunday Seminars and Godly Play, even in our committee meetings.
We also proclaim this good news to the world beyond this building, although we aren’t as intentional about that. We have a Facebook page and we post our sermons online. We have a speaker series on climate change called Green Chautauqua, and about 90% of the people who show up aren’t church folks. I welcome them, tell them where the restrooms are, and then say something like, “If you’re wondering why a church is offering a series on global warming, in a nutshell, it’s because this congregation is a social justice-and-people-loving bunch of folks, and you can’t love people, or any other creature, or justice, if you don’t also love the earth that God created, and that sustains us all.” Well, it’s a start. Perhaps one of our challenges as a congregation is figuring out how to be gutsier about sharing the good news with the world.
Our website, however, is terrific. If you haven’t seen it, I invite you to look at our webpage that says, “What We Believe.” Part of what we proclaim there is this: “We [at First Presbyterian Church] believe that Jesus points us to a way of life and faith centered in the love of God. He called this “the kingdom of God,” a kingdom not defined by a list of unchanging beliefs, but by the dynamic pursuit of love. Therefore, we believe that church should be more of a ‘school of love,’ and less about right doctrines or beliefs. Our starting place is seeking to love one another. We strive to be a welcoming and hospitable community where all people are welcome. We value the sacredness of life. We honor diversity. We listen for God’s call. We challenge and nurture each person’s journey toward the justice of Christ, the reconciliation of the Spirit and the wholeness of God. This is how we live our faith in the world.”
“We are called to live out our faith in our relationships in the world. We are called to love broadly and to seek fullness of life for all people, wherever they are. This means that we will act on behalf of others and on behalf of God’s creation, addressing injustice, healing the planet, and seeking peace with our neighbors and our enemies.”
“Above all, we believe that practicing love is more important than anything we believe.”
That, my friends, is what proclaiming the gospel for the salvation of humankind looks like. It is far easier to say than to do. Which is why we need to remember who we are. May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2019 all rights reserved.
 Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 171.
 Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 139.
 McLaren, Everything Must Change (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 190-198.
 McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian (New York: Convergent Books, 2016), 148.
 McLaren, ibid. 149.
 McLaren, Everything Must Change, 84.
 McLaren, ibid. 99.
 McLaren, ibid. 99-100.