For the text this weekend from 2 Timothy 2.8-15, I invited a string quartet to participate in the sermon. It was a craptastic disaster in the Saturday evening service, but I think it could turned out nicely by Sunday morning.
I owe a debt to John Nugent for his podcast with me recently and for his new book Endangered Gospel. Both the categories the quartet helped me explicate as well the bite at the end I owe to him.
I’d like to dedicate this sermon to that special someone here in the congregation who was so kind and so thoughtful, so considerate, to add my name and my contact information to the mass email list of Donald J. Trump.
Thanks to you, ever since last Friday’s hot mic Access Hollywood video, I’ve received approximately 7 emails a day imploring me to do my Christian duty (in $50 installments) to bring America back from the apocalyptic precipice on which it stands and make it great again.
I’d like to dedicate this sermon to that special someone here in the congregation was kind enough and thoughtful enough, considerate really, to add my name and my contact information to the “Christians for Hillary” distribution list.
Thanks to you, ever since the convention, I’ve received approximately 12 emails per week rousing me to my Christian responsibility to protect the greatness of America from the apocalyptic specter of Donald Trump occupying the White House.
This sermon is for you too.
This sermon is for that precious parishioner here in the congregation who, every day, forwards me exhortations and editorials from Sojourners, the progressive Christian magazine, articles arguing that as a Christian I have an obligation to seek social justice, fight poverty and fight for a fair wage, combat racism and xenophobia, protect the rights of women and homosexuals, and reverse global warming.
This sermon is for all of you who’ve made it possible that not a day goes by in the life of your pastor that you don’t share something on my Facebook Timeline about Donald Trump, Michelle Obama, Chris Christie, Tim Kaine, Mike Pence, Jerry Falwell Jr., Planned Parenthood or the NRA urging me, as a faith leader, to fulfill my role to better society in blue or red hues.
This sermon is for that generous congregant who last fall, when I was still on medical leave, snagged me and my plus-one an invitation to an all-expenses-paid, clergy-only weekend retreat with Ted Cruz where, the invitation explained, we would strategize to restore God’s will for the nation.
And even though that sounds about as much fun as taking a bus full of 1st graders to Great Wolf Lodge for an alcohol free weekend- it was a thoughtful gesture. So this sermon’s for you too.
This sermon is for all of you who think that our democracy is hurting, our society is in danger, our nation in decline and believe that it’s our job as the Church to fix it.
This sermon is for all of you who think that our world is broken and think that it’s our responsibility as Christians to change it. To change the world, to make it a better place.
This sermon is for you.
Because when you think it’s our job as Christians to change the world, what’s really in danger isn’t the world, what’s in danger- what’s endangered- is the Gospel.
Paul defines the Gospel in verse 8 of today’s text.
“Remember,” he says, “Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David- that is my gospel.”
Each of those elements in Paul’s definition of the Gospel they’re like instruments in a string quartet.
“Jesus” [Play Briefly]
Jesus is the instrument that plays the salvation strand of the story; the name “Jesus” is shorthand for God takes flesh in Jesus and on the cross rescues us from captivity to the Sin of the world.
“Christ” [Play Briefly]
Christ means ‘Anointed One.’
In Hebrew, it’s Messiah. Rome used the word ‘Caesar.’ We translate it ‘King.’
“Christ” here in Paul’s definition of the Gospel is the instrument that plays the Kingdom strand of the scripture story, how God comes to us in Jesus as our rightful King and teaches his followers what it means to live as subjects of his Kingdom.
“Raised from the dead” [Play Briefly]
Raised from the dead is the instrument that plays the finale strand scripture, the New Age of which the New Testament says Christ’s resurrection is the first sign.
And the final instrument in Paul’s Gospel Music is“A descendant of David.” [Play Briefly]
David is the instrument that plays the Old Testament strand of the scripture story. David echoes how the Gospel is the outworking of God’s purposes first promised to the People called Israel.
The Gospel is like a piece of music.
The reason there’s so much confusion over who we’re called to be and what we’re called to do is because for so long Christians have been fiddling with the music.
We turn some of the instruments way up and turn others way down, mute some and distort others to the point where we can no longer hear how, so often, the music we’re performing is something different from what the Author intends.
One of the primary ways we distort the Gospel Music- we make it Heaven-Centered.
We turn the volume way, way up on Jesus and we turn the volume way down on Christ and David to the point that it throws Resurrection out of time with the others.
In the Heaven-Centered Gospel, the Jesus part of the Gospel Music is so loud it sounds like the entire composition is about nothing more than God taking flesh and taking our sin to the Cross.
The only notes anyone can hear from the David part of the music are the ones that show how Jesus’ death for sin fulfilled Old Testament prophecy.
But if that’s all you hear from David, you can no longer hear that even larger theme of how God desires to have a People here on Earth who would live with God as their Sovereign instead of following a king like all the other nations.
And you forget that that’s really what the 1st Commandment is all about: “You shall no other kings before me.”
And then you fail to notice that our rejection of Christ comes not on the Cross but when we declare to Pontus Pilate: “We have no king but Caesar.”
When you turn Jesus way up and David way down, you no longer know why Jesus bothered to spend 3 years before his death and 50 days after it teaching his disciples about the Kingdom of God.
In the Heaven-Centered Gospel, the Jesus part of the music blares so loudly, all you can hear is the noise about the world’s sinfulness. In such a world, what sense does it make to say that Jesus is King?
That’s why the Heaven-Centered Gospel turns the Christ part of the music so low it sounds like Jesus is just a King enthroned in our hearts.
Which distorts the fourth part of the music: Resurrection.
The Heaven-Centered Gospel so cranks up the volume on the fallenness of the world and so mutes God’s determination to rule this Earth, it makes the world sound disposable instead of a world where God is determined to have dominion.
And that distorts the Resurrection part of the music.
Because now, in the Heaven-Centered Gospel, what we hear isn’t that God will make this world a better place, body and soul. It’s the signal that God will take our souls from our earthly bodies and take them away to a better place.
This confused Gospel leads to confusion about who we are and what we’re called to do.
According to this Gospel, who we are- we’re sinners redeemed by his death who will be rescued from this world upon our own.
We’re not called to fix society’s ills or change the world or make it a better place because the reality of Sin is such that only God can overcome Sin.
And, according to this distorted music, God’s way of overcoming the world’s Sin is to rescue the faithful from it to a better place.
All we’re called to do as Christians is to give people Jesus so that they too can go to a better place when they die.
Another way we distort the Gospel Music- instead of Heaven-Centered, we make it Human-Centered.
We keep David so it’s barely audible still, but we fiddle with the music so that now the volume on Jesus gets turned down low until all that noise about the sinfulness of humanity and the fallenness of the world fades away. And instead we ratchet up the Christ and Resurrection parts of the music.
in the Human-Centered Gospel, because you can barely hear the Jesus music, you forget that constant refrain of scripture: that our situation as sinners is such that only God can rectify what’s broken in us and in the world.
So Christ, in the Human-Centered Gospel, is no longer a King who triumphed over Evil, he’s a King who taught us how to eradicate evil in the world.
And with the Jesus music and all its noise about sinful humanity and a fallen world muted, it begins to sound as if we’re capable of making the world a better place.
Jesus’ Kingdom teaching begins to sound like a description of God’s politics, like it’s God’s blueprint for us to usher in the New Creation.
In the Human-Centered Gospel, the Kingdom, becomes our job. Christ began the work of the Kingdom and now it’s our task to bring it to completion.
Of course, you can’t fiddle with the Gospel Music this way without, again, neglecting the David part of the music. In the Human-Centered Gospel, the only audible notes from the David part of the music are those from the prophets, who preached about justice and mercy and learning war no more.
The problem with the Human-Centered Gospel is that it relies on an optimism about human progress that is contradicted by the violence of the last century and the first part of this one.
Again, confusion over the Gospel leads to a confusion over who we are and what we’re called to do.
According to this distorted Gospel Music, who we are- we’re agents of God’s Kingdom, partners with God.
And we’re called to fix the problems of the world, to make the world a better place according to God’s Kingdom vision.
A third way we distort the Gospel music- we make it World-Centered.
In the World-Centered Gospel, we balance the Jesus and the Christ parts. But we turn the Resurrection part of the music so that it’s loudest of all and we make the David part of the music play only the first measure of its music over and over, the creation story.
In the World-Centered Gospel, you can finally properly hear about Christ’s Kingdom in tandem with the reality of Sin and how God is the only agent who can overcome it to fix this broken world.
In that regard, the World-Centered Gospel sounds better.
But because the World-Centered Gospel makes the Resurrection part of the music loudest of all, what we hear is that God made this world. God cares about this world. God will redeem this world and God’s People can play a role.
In the World-Centered Gospel, the Jesus music is loud enough that we don’t lose sight of our sinfulness or the world’s fallenness. So the World-Centered Gospel doesn’t tell us that it’s our job to build God’s Kingdom.
Only God can make this world a better place and that renewal began in Jesus Christ and God is, even now, bringing it to fruition.
We can’t bring the Kingdom of God or make this world a better place, but what we can do, according to the World-Centered Gospel, is go out into the world to join with God in what God is doing.
We can join movements and causes. We can work for justice and advocate for change, and wherever we participate in such work we point to the day when God will, once and for all, make this world a better place.
Confusion over the Gospel Music leads to confusion over who we are and what we’re called to do.
According to this distorted Gospel Music, who we are- we’re witnesses who point to what God is doing out there in the world.
And what we’re called to do is roll up our sleeves, get out from behind the walls of the Church and join God in making this world a better place.
The World-Centered Gospel sounds better, no doubt.
But there’s still too many dissonant notes.
Jesus never tells his disciples to venture beyond the walls of their community, Israel, and work to transform pagan society or make pagan governments more just.
And in Jesus’ Bible, the Old Testament, God commands Israel to care for the needy within Israel not outside of it.
Even in the Sermon on the Mount, with a crowd gathered to listen to him, Christ isn’t talking to the multitude. He’s speaking to his disciples. He’s not describing how the world is to live. He’s describing how they’re to live among the world.
Obviously, as good as the music sounds, it’s still not quite Gospel.
The Gospel Music Paul wants you to hear is Kingdom-Centered.
David provides the music’s bottom.
David is the foundation but finally all four of the instruments play equally and together to create a single composition.
In the Kingdom-Centered Gospel, God created the world to be a very good place for his creatures but the sin of humanity corrupted God’s good creation.
So- this is the part you need to listen for- God’s solution to the Sin problem was to call a particular People.
God’s solution to Adam’s Fall was to raise up Abraham and to give him a family called Israel.
God called Israel to be an alternative in the world. God called his People to live a set apart way with God as their King.
And, through this particular People, God promised that the whole world would be blessed.
God didn’t explain how the world would be blessed through them.
God didn’t send them out into the world to bless it themselves.
God just promised that somehow through their life as God’s People would be a part of how God blesses the world.
What the Kingdom-Centered Gospel recovers that the other versions miss is that all along God’s plan to make this world a better place was by calling a People.
And according to the Kingdom-Centered Gospel, this is the plan God continues in Jesus. God sends Jesus to inaugurate a better place in and through a particular People.
Jesus takes on the sin of humanity not to judge humanity or to forgive humanity but to restore humanity because redeemed creatures are the first step in a renewed creation. As St. Paul says if anyone is in Jesus, he or she is part of a new creation.
Because the Kingdom-Centered Gospel remembers that those baptized into Jesus are new creatures for a new creation, it knows how to play the Christ part of the music correctly.
Because Christ isn’t King in Heaven nor in our hearts.
Christ’s Kingdom isn’t far off or in the not yet future.
Christ’s Kingdom teachings aren’t impossible ideals for an after life nor are they a blueprint for society and its civics.
No, what the Kingdom-Centered Gospel is able to hear in the music is that
from the beginning God’s plan to make this world a better place has always been through a particular People.
So if Christ is King then Christ’s People, his followers, the Church- they are his Kingdom.
The People of Christ- who are the children of Abraham- they are the Kingdom.
They are the Kingdom where lost sheep are sought and lost children welcomed and where sin is forgiven 70 x 7 times.
Like salt on food, like a pearl among swine, like a mustard seed on a mighty mountain, like a light among nations Christ’s People are in the wider world his Kingdom come on Earth, living as is in Heaven.
And that’s what the Kingdom-Centered Gospel gets right about the Resurrection part of the Gospel Music.
Because it’s not only that God raised Jesus from the dead to be a sign of God’s New Creation, it’s that Jesus raised up a Kingdom called Church who are themselves a sign.
New Creation isn’t something in the future for which we wait. New Creation isn’t something we work to achieve. And it’s not something God is doing out in the world that we must join outside of or apart from the People called Church.
The People called Church- they are what God is doing in the world.
The Church embodies, proclaims, and displays God’s future now, New Creation even within the Old, taking it on faith that, like yeast folded into dough, what God does in his People God will ultimately do for the world when Christ comes back in final victory.
That’s the Gospel Music.
And today, I want to dedicate this song to all of you who forward me your political action emails, all of you who put Christian voter guides in my inbox, every one of you who make exhortative editorials on my Facebook Timeline, tweet me your take on the debate, and tell me in breathless tones that if we don’t support this agenda or back that candidate all hope for changing the world and making it a better place is lost.
This Gospel Music is for you.
Because if you listen close you’ll hear-
As John Nugent says:
The Gospel does not call us to change the world.
The Gospel is how we are the change that God has already made in the world.
The Gospel does not call us to fix the world’s problems.
The Gospel is that we are God’s fix for the world.
Or we’re supposed to be.
But we can’t be who we’re called to be when we are more emotionally invested in our candidate than we are in our faith, know more about the issues than we do our scripture.
We can’t be who the Gospel say we are when we can recite the latest Real Clear Politics polling average but if someone called upon us to pray out loud we’d blush and stammer.
We can’t be who we’re supposed to be when we can argue for or against the ins and outs of HR Bill 501, but we aren’t prepared to tell someone else what difference Jesus makes for how we live their lives.
We can’t be who we’re supposed to be when we’re willing to go door-to-door for Donald or Hillary but haven’t ever once invited someone to Church.
Now that I’m Executive Pastor and know what everyone gives, I know it’s a safe bet that the Democrats and Republicans get more of our money than does Christ’s Church.
And nothing reveals more where we think the stakes lie.
So I dedicate this Gospel Music today to you.
(And to me).
Because if, as the Gospel says, we are the change that God has already made in the world.
Then that means when we rush out into the world to fix the world’s problems, by joining this movement or supporting that cause, endorsing this candidate or that party, we actually risk getting in God’s way.
When we try to fix the world’s problems by other means- especially the red and blue means- we get in God’s way.
Because we’re supposed to be God’s fix for the world.
We are the change God has already made in the world.
Rather than legislating abortion, we’re supposed to be the People who adopt and foster children, who welcome and support mothers.
Rather than arguing about immigration and borders and walls, we’re supposed to be the People who welcome strangers and aliens.
While others fight over whether black lives matter or all lives matter, we’re supposed to be the Community where there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither white nor black nor blue.
Neither gay nor straight for that matter.
And, for that matter, rather than waging war for a seat on the Court we’re supposed to be the People who stay faithful to one another in marriage.
Instead of stalemating over economic policy, we should be the Community where none among us goes in need, where all that we have is shared with all whom we have in our community.
Let others debate our nation’s Defense policy and let us Christians be the People who refuse to kill other Christians because that would be a light to the nations.
I dedicate this Gospel Music to all of you who think we’re called to make this world a better place.
Listen to it again-
We are called to be the better place that God as made in this world.
This song’s for you.
[Play Whole Song]