"Not that there is another gospel..."
Sermon for Sunday 29 May 2016
Sermon for Sunday 29 May 2016
2nd Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
As a missionary living thousands of kilometers away from family and friends, I’m a great fan of social media and the many modern technologies which keep me in touch with those I love across great distances. Still, it is unnerving the way these technologies interact with one another, and with us. Shop for tickets to a show today, and tomorrow when you’re reading a news story, there will be an ad for that same show after the second paragraph. If I buy a book today, tomorrow the website will tell me “You might be interested in this!” The internet gods seem to know what I will want to eat next, buy next, and read next. And much of the time, they’re right.
But sometimes the great internet gods get it wrong. Sometimes, they think they know me, but it turns out their algorithms are off. This week, as I was doing some sermon prep, this flashy ad appeared on my screen: “Click here for EIGHT PRAYERS THAT WORK!”
Eight prayers that work! I suppose that’s as opposed to the ones I’ve been praying already? Or the one prayer that Jesus taught us to pray? And why only eight? If these prayers really work, I want more! I found myself wondering if these prayers were like three magic wishes from a fairy tale, and whether you could use one of your eight prayers to pray for one million MORE prayers that work…
But I didn’t click on the ad link to find out. When the Apostle Paul wrote in Galatians about the temptation of false gospels, he certainly never imagined the ever-present danger of social media ads, but his words still ring true in today’s context. He writes to the church in Galatia:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.”
From Paul’s time to today, there have been those who pervert the gospel of Jesus Christ, twisting its radical message of grace and love to fit their own agenda, confusing us along the way. For the church in Galatia, the controversy was over who had a place at the Lord’s Table. Some were saying—and others were believing—that all needed to follow Jewish law before they could receive the Good News.
Today the issues are different, but we can easily point to some confusing messages about Jesus that are popular in today’s world:
The so-called Prosperity “gospel”, for example, promises health and wealth and abundant blessings, if only you will fill the preacher’s pocket with money first. Sadly, this message finds many followers in the poorest countries, where people can least afford its consequences.
There are those whose interpretation of the “Good News” seems to suggest that Jesus is a nationalist, or a racist, or a sexist, or is mostly concerned with which bathroom a person is allowed to access.
And in our city, we see other perversions of the Good News which have nothing to do with Jesus’ love or the cross and empty tomb, but have everything to do with a strange end-times fantasy. For these frequent visitors to the Holy Land, the real people of Jerusalem—Muslim, Jew, and Christian—serve only as characters in an end-times drama we are told is surely unfolding this year…or maybe the next. And never mind about the suffering of our Palestinian neighbors—they don’t even appear in this version of the script.
The Apostle Paul tells us: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!”
This may seem a little heavy-handed for something like that ad for the “Eight Prayers that Work!” But what is clear is that followers of Jesus, grateful recipients of the grace of God through the cross of Christ, have a responsibility to call false gospels what they are. We are called to rebuke perversions of Jesus’ message—not so that we can sit in judgement or force our beliefs on others—but because Jesus also calls us to love our neighbors.
For what is the greatest commandment? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” And the second one is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31) If we are to love our neighbors, then we must be concerned that so many suffer today because they’ve given money to preachers believing they will receive a car or a house in return. Too many have left the church because someone told them it was their lack of faith that kept their child’s cancer from being healed. Too many wars have been started, and racist attitudes provoked and promoted, because of twisted ideas about biblical real-estate deals, and fantasies about Jerusalem’s role in the eventual return of Jesus.
These and other false gospels we must name and rebuke, for the love and protection of all our neighbors – Christian, Muslim, and Jew. All deserve to hear, from our lips, that the cross of Christ is not a weapon, or a magic trick, or a flag representing any nation, but is the visible sign of God’s radical love for the whole world. All should hear this Good News, but perhaps especially our neighbors of different faiths need to hear it, since they are the ones who have most suffered because of perversions of Jesus’ message.
But then, sometimes the most dangerous perversions of the Gospel come not from a preacher, or a biblical interpretation, or from outside us at all. Sometimes, the most unhelpful ideas about the way God works come from ourselves.
When I was a student preacher, one of the suggestions for improving our preaching was to have the congregation fill out sermon feedback forms. This usually worked fine, except for one very faithful elder in the congregation. She had been a member of the church for many decades, and had certainly heard more sermons than she could count. Still, every single week, her sermon feedback form said something like this:
“Carrie, I really like how you said that if we are good people, and pray the right prayers, and do things for our neighbor, then Jesus will love us and save us.”
I promise I have never once preached a sermon with this message! And I’m fairly certain that this life-long Lutheran church member had not heard other preachers promoting what Lutheran tradition calls “works righteousness”, either. And yet, this was the gospel she held in her heart. This was the news she had heard about Jesus—news that can hardly be called “good.” Somehow, no matter how many times she heard otherwise, this lovely Christian woman believed she must walk the straight and narrow, or the power of the cross wouldn’t work for her. Like the synagogue elders in today’s Gospel lesson, who believed the centurion’s good deeds made him worthy of Jesus’ attention, she did not yet know that her faith alone made her worthy.
I was sad to think that this kind-hearted woman had spent eighty years living in fear of making a mistake that could take Jesus’ love away from her. This, too, is a perversion of the gospel, as false and as dangerous as any message coming from a slick televangelist.
The truth is, each one of us likely harbors secret beliefs about the way God works, beliefs which have nothing to do with the Good News of the cross and the empty tomb.
Even if we’ve heard the Good News many times,
even if we’ve read the Bible cover to cover,
even if we’re theology students, or preachers, or we work in a church-related NGO, or we go to church every week,
Even if we live in the Holy City of Jerusalem,
we may have secret, false, so-called “gospels” taking up space in our hearts and minds, tormenting our souls, or simply distracting us from the abundant life Jesus desires for us.
Therefore, I proclaim to you the Good News today, as the Apostle Paul began his letter to the Galatians:
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Hear it again: Grace and peace are yours from Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free…
In Christ, we are free! We are free from the prison of prejudice, racism, sexism, and homophobia, for we have all been made in God’s image.
In Christ, we are free from the idea that blessedness is a full bank account or a new car, for we possess the riches of heaven.
In Christ, we are free to pound our swords into plowshares, for he has already won the battle for us.
In Christ, we are free to join in the struggle for peace, justice, and reconciliation, for he has already broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us.
In Christ, we are free to rebuke false gospels which want to confuse us – whether they come from the pulpit, or from the media, or whether fear hides them deep within us, making us question if such Good News, such amazing grace, such mighty power over sin and death could really be for us.
Thanks be to God, the grace and peace and love and liberation of the cross and the empty tomb are for all! God’s love alone makes you worthy of this gift!
This is the one true Gospel that has been proclaimed to us, from the disciples of Jesus, to the early church, to Redeemer Church in Jerusalem today.
For this Gospel, we praise Jesus. For this Gospel, we sing. For the sake of this Gospel, we continue to work for peace, justice, and reconciliation in this country, with hope and courage, in spite of the odds that seem stacked against us.
For the sake of this Gospel, we go out to love and serve our neighbor, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.