Who Is Jesus for Us Today?

September 9, 2018
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Psalm 8; John 1:45-51

Another year of education and ministry begins at Westminster. As a congregation we’re moving from strength to strength, as we enter our 162nd year of worship and witness in this city. Our voice and our presence in this community matter. Our vision of what Minneapolis might become, shared by people of other faith traditions and people of good will, matters. Our educational programs that teach timeless truths, matter.

Who doesn’t revel in the start of Coming Together Sunday at Westminster…all those children and youth…all those committed teachers…all that promise and potential! “Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark,” the psalmist says. That bulwark begins forming again this morning in our nursery and church school.

The work of the Church is fundamentally a teaching task: asking questions, seeking answers, exploring possibilities – and then translating all of that into life between Sundays.

But the children and youth are not the only ones needing to nurture their faith. Christianity is never settled for any of us, no matter our age or the extent of our involvement in church. The world is always changing. If our faith is not similarly dynamic, not living, not rising to the challenges we see all around us, not attuned to the context in which we live, it will slowly wither away.

In July Beth and I took another of our long walks. You knew a story was coming, didn’t you? Might as well get it out there and get started. This summer it was a 150-mile pilgrimage across Scotland on the John Muir Way. We passed through little villages and bustling cities and in many of them we saw church buildings that had ceased to house worshipping congregations.

It wasn’t all bad, though. We had a lovely lunch one afternoon in the nave of a church in Glasgow that had been converted into a café ministering to people experiencing homelessness. We met a pastor whose building is an art school during the week and a church on Sunday. But we also saw churches that had been transformed into condos and apartments and jewelry stores and retail shops – and even a brew pub. No some of you are wondering…what’s wrong with that? Let’s not go there.

But we walked by plenty of churches that had gone completely quiet and simply were shuttered. I remember one with bright signs posted on the beautiful old doors by the wonderful massive hinges saying, “Warning! Dangerous Site! Keep Out!”

At first I was rather depressed by that. And then I started thinking about it…Actually there’s something appealing to the notion that what happens in churches can be hazardous to the status quo. Powerful worship is subversive; it wants to upend the dominant ethos. A church ought to be considered a place the world enters at its own risk. After all, we follow a Savior perceived to be such a serious threat that he was crucified.

But the Church is not only what happens inside these walls for a few hours each week. As wonderful as our worship is and as fun as our committees are and as informative as our classes are, Church mostly happens the rest of the week, out there. We – you and I – are the Church when we leave here and go out into the world. We are the Church when we go to work on Monday, when we walk into that classroom at school, when we live side-by-side with our neighbors, when we participate and volunteer in the community, when we enter the polling place. We are the Church.

Some streams of Christianity have tried to close themselves off from the world and confine their ministry to prayer and concern for the life to come, as if Jesus were all spirit and no flesh. We Presbyterians do not wade in those waters. The faith we practice has always felt compelled to move out into the streets and ask, “What is God up to in this place and in this time?” because we want to join that work. Call it public theology, or our witness in the world, or the pursuit of biblical justice – our faith has never wanted to sequester Jesus in the sanctuary, as if he might – we might – be sullied by the messy reality of what’s going on in the world around us.

We Come Together not to be sheltered in this sacred space, but, rather, to hear the call of God to go forth and be the Church. To do that, however, means we need to understand whom we follow out into those streets.

That desire to know more prompts the would-be disciple Nathanael to push back when his friend Philip asks him to join the growing band of those following Jesus son of Joseph of Nazareth. An unconvinced Nathanael will not be easily won over.  He hasn’t even met Jesus, and besides, he says, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” The town must have had quite a reputation.

Don’t you love it that when presented with an invitation from his friend to meet this one whom people are saying fulfills the promise of old, about whom Moses spoke, and about whom was written in the ancient law – the one about whom everybody was talking about – Nathanael does not swoon in response? His skepticism is well-founded. Philip says Jesus son of Joseph of Nazareth is the one foretold by ancient prophets. But Nathanael – who is a good Jew as Jesus will point out later in the story – knows his scripture. That one was to come from Bethlehem, out of the house and lineage of David – not from Nazareth. Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

The gospel of John opens with this skeptical Nathanael and then some 20 chapters later closes with a doubting Thomas, as if the gospel writer is trying to signal something to us. Both of these characters – Nathanael at the start and Thomas at the end – are asking for clarification about who Jesus is. And so they should – and so should each of us. Jesus has been hijacked and domesticated, re-tooled and de-fanged in so many different ways it’s hard to know which Jesus we’re talking about.

The decision to follow Jesus, Professor Gail O’Day says, “Is inseparable from the decision one makes about Jesus’ identity.” [New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995) p. 534]

Who we think he is will determine the kind of Christians we become.

Following Jesus from a distance of 2,000 years and several thousand miles is not easy. I did a memorial service recently for a man who had explained in an email years ago to his children years ago with Nathanael-like honesty why he had trouble believing in Jesus. “I never met the guy,” he said.

But, he was quick to add, he had no trouble at all trusting in Jesus, and he was here nearly every Sunday in worship. Note the distinction, between believing and trusting. When he moved his struggle to make sense of religion from his mind, from his empirically-oriented intellect, where a lot of us spend a lot of time, to his heart, the place of relationship and intimacy and transforming personal experience, then he became comfortable with the idea of trusting Jesus, and following him into the world.

That’s where Nathanael wants to be – in a relationship with the authentic Jesus, not somebody’s hyped-up, invented Messiah. To follow Jesus, to follow the Messiah, is serious business. Nathanael, he senses that if that following is done with authenticity and eagerness and full-heart, it will get us into trouble. He was right.

In the 1930s in Germany, the young pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer found himself growing skeptical about the Jesus being preached in the churches of that land. As political rhetoric became more overtly racist and the culture increasingly supportive of extreme Aryan nationalism, most German Christian churches rolled over and acquiesced to all of that. They gave their Jesus over to the rising ideology of the times. It was expedient for them, convenient for them, to go along with the predominant and popular spirit of the land.

Bonhoeffer and his colleagues – Karl Barth, Martin Niemoller, and others – resisted, and some of them eventually paid for it with their lives. They wrote an affirmation of faith rejecting the distorted theology used to underpin racism and nationalism. They started an alternative church, called the Confessing Church, as opposed to the German Christian Church, which supported the ideology of the times.. They founded an underground seminary, as over against the schools of the German Christian Church, which taught theology that supported the direction the nation was moving. They preached and worked against the tide. And behind all that work, according to Bonhoeffer, was a single, driving question: Who is Jesus Christ for us today?

We need to be careful not to draw a direct historical analogy, but the determining issue facing Christians in that time in Germany may also be the same in our time in America: Who is Jesus Christ for us today? That question will inform our worship at Westminster this fall, even as it informs our life as we move from this place out into the world. (See Is This a Bonhoeffer Moment? Sojourners, Feb 2018)

An emerging America that is less white and more diverse, with women and others previously excluded increasingly now in leadership or seeking to be there, is frightening to some. That anxiety can move people to set aside values and look past things that otherwise would have been deemed unthinkable to unacceptable to them.

Surveys show that 81% of white American evangelicals who voted in the last presidential election were motivated less by their faith and more by fear, by fear of demographic shifts in the country. People are circling the wagons for protection, and it’s not healthy for the nation or the nation’s churches and communities of faith. An ugly clannishness is gaining strength in America, driven by dread of those not like us whom we perceive to be a threat to our place and our privilege. Parts of the Christian Church are encouraging this fracturing. (See: Niraj Choksi, Trump Voters Driven by Fear of Losing Status, Not Economic Anxiety, Study Finds; New York Times, 4/14/18)

Eighty years ago in Germany was not the only time when Christians have resisted the prevailing winds. Forty years ago in South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church wrote and adopted what became known as the Confession of Belhar. The Dutch Reformed Mission Church was the segregated denomination created for “mixed race” persons in the 19th century by the white Dutch Reformed Church, the denomination that eventually – by the mid-20th century – would develop a theological justification for apartheid, a theological basis for apartheid. (The Dutch Reformed Mission Church was created by the Dutch Reformed Church in 1881 for “mixed race” people; the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa was created for “blacks” in 1951, three years after apartheid had been officially established. More)

The Confession of Belhar is a theological denunciation of the racist political system of South Africa of that time. It rejects the notion that God would accept the dividing of the human family on the basis of race or color. The Confession answers Bonhoeffer’s question, “Who is Jesus Christ for us today,” by portraying Jesus as the one standing with those on the receiving end of the cruelties of history, those excluded from places of privilege and power by virtue of who they are or where they live or what language they speak or whom they love or the circumstances of their lives.

Who Jesus is for us determines what it means for us to pursue his way – to be Christian in our time.

Like the Germans of the Confessing Church, and like many in our land today, the “mixed race” South Africans stood their ground. They stood their ground against those who would corrupt Christianity to make it supportive of the politics of exclusion and racial superiority. They declared that one could not be a follower of Jesus and, at the same time, a supporter of apartheid. Think of that in our time: it is not possible to be a follower of Jesus and a supporter of racism at the same time.

Our denomination adopted the Confession of Belhar two years ago. It’s now part of our Book of Confessions. We chose to adopt it to speak to our own historic and current racism in America, a system that has been in place for so many centuries. Westminster has embarked on a pilgrimage to join the great effort in our nation finally, finally now wanting to come to terms with the original sin of this land, the enslavement – the buying and selling of human beings, the thinking of people as less than human – the enslavement of Africans to build up our nation. The legacy of that terrible time yet endures today. That journey for us, as followers of Jesus, starts with the question: Who is Jesus Christ for us today?

Following Jesus is costly. The South Africans found that out. The Confessing Church in Germany discovered that. We will learn that, as well. The challenge to love in the way of Jesus should not be undertaken lightly. It will change each one of us and, hopefully, the world in which we live.

That’s why it matters what we do here in worship week after week. That’s why it matters that our children and youth are engaged in nurturing their faith. That’s why it matters who we are as a congregation in this city.

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael asks his friend Philip.

“Come and see,” Philip says in response.

Come and see.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Pastoral Prayer ~10:30 am Worship

David Shinn

O Lord, our sovereign, how majestic is indeed your name in all the earth, cosmos, and universe. In your temple, here in this church and every place of worship across the globe, you called your faithful to come home again. By your generous grace, we are here, creatures of you beloved creation, lifting voices in praise to your name, the whole creation sing. We praise for the burning sun, and silver moon, for the tender hearts of all your people, all singing alleluia to our God.

Loving God, you set your order in this world with love and purpose. Yet we, beloved as we are, with our sins and brokenness have not live with love and divine purpose. Sending your Son, Jesus to show us the way, the truth and life. You renewed all to be born of the water through baptism, and be born of the Spirit for life transformed. Filled with you love for justice, kindness, and mercy, you empower us to stand against injustice, against dividing people on ground of race and color, gender identity, and sexual orientation. You inspire us to labor so to counter the warming of this beautiful planet we call home. In this fragile world, we pray peace for all conflicts zones, and we especially lift up prayers for Cameroon, Palestine, and South Sudan.

Inspire us O Lord with powerful worship, lead us to be subversive to bring change for good, and be the church that not only proclaims with words but acts with our hands and feet. Fear will not darken our hearts, disillusion will not cloud our minds, and despair will not sway our faith.

On this day, as we begin the new program year of our church school for all ages, we come as students with our minds ready, hearts hungry, and spirit-led. Guide us as we seek to desire Jesus Christ in all that we do and say for this world. Bless all of us from young to old that we would be student of faith in all our lives.

We pray for all in our community seeking healing of their body from recent surgery, procedures, chemotherapy and treatments. For all who live with mental illness, struggle with loneliness, facing isolation, and encountering hardship, bless them O Lord and lead us to respond with the generosity of grace as you have blessed us all.

O Lord, the sovereign one, how indeed majestic is your name in all the earth! We pray, with your name, the very prayer that our Savior Jesus has taught all of us to pray, Our Father…

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