Putting Christ Back into Christianity

FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 9:36-43

Psalm 23

Revelation 7:9-17

John 10:22-30

Prayer of the Day: O God of peace, you brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great shepherd of the sheep. By the blood of your eternal covenant, make us complete in everything good that we may do your will, and work among us all that is well-pleasing in your sight, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” Revelation 7:9-10.

Saint Paul reminds Timothy that “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” II Timothy 3:16-17. Yet in every age, particular scriptures percolate up to address with new urgency the unique circumstances of the times. I can think of fewer passages than this speaking with greater clarity to the oneness of the human family and God’s desire to unite that family as one holy people without regard to “nation, tribe, people or language.” Furthermore, I can think of no period in my lifetime when that message needs to be heard more than the last decade over which we have witnessed in our own country and throughout the world a rising tide of nationalist, populist and racist sentiment often advancing under the banner of Christianity. Under these circumstances, says the Lutheran World Federation in its introductory statement to a collection of thoughtful essays on this subject, “[c]hurches are called to reflect more deeply on their public role in view of populist exclusionary policies. In a situation where populist movements misappropriate Christian rhetoric to justify their aspirations, churches cannot remain silent, but need to resist exclusionary strategies.” Introduction by Eva Harasta and Simone Sinn to Resisting Exclusion: Global Theological Responses to Populism, (pub. by Evangelische Verlangsanstalt GmbH, Leipzig, Germany, under the auspices of The Lutheran World Federation) p. 11.

Of course, it is hard to “resist exclusionary strategies” when you are part of them. And it is hard to deny that Christians in the United States are neck deep in the politics of exclusion as anyone watching news clips from the January 6, 2021 insurrection can attest. Recall the flag at the head of the mob proclaiming “Jesus is my Savior and Trump is my president.” Recall the large wooden cross that stood near the gallows constructed for then vice president, Mike Pence. Recall Rev. Franklin Graham’s bold assertion that Donald Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 was by the will and act of God. Many of us would argue that this is not the Christianity we believe, teach and confess. But the public, particularly those people without much in the way of religious commitment or involvement, frequently do not recognize such fine distinctions. They see the symbols and rhetoric of our faith woven into the hateful ideology of Trumpism and draw the conclusion, quite reasonably, that the two are one. Moreover, as much as we mainline protestants talk the talk of inclusion, we are far from successful in walking the walk. We remain overwhelmingly “white.” Despite our acceptance of women as pastors and priests, these women continue to face obstacles of stubbornly patriarchal institutional frameworks. Though we claim on a national denominational level to welcome persons of all sexual identities, there remain many congregations that are far from welcoming. As long as these conditions persist, the credibility of our prophetic witness to God’s inclusive reign will suffer.

This Fourth Sunday in Easter has become known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” I am not sure whether that is so because the lectionary texts happen to focus on the theme of shepherds and sheep or whether the observance of the day dictated the texts. However one resolves this chicken/egg question, we are left with a day on which we are invited to consider what it means for Jesus to be our shepherd. That is the single most important question for disciples of Jesus. Yet much of what passes for Christianity these days has more to do with “culture war” issues than Jesus and his priorities. I doubt Jesus has any interest in bullying LGBTQ+ families into silence, banning books about slavery and Jim Crow in public schools so as not to hurt the feelings of white people, placing the bodies of women under state control or putting up plastic images of the holy family in the same public parks from which flesh and blood homeless people are chased away. Nor do I believe that congregations consisting in the main of straight, white, upper middle class Americans reflects the kind of Church Jesus had in mind when he sent his disciples to make disciples of all nations. The sad truth is that most of what passes for Christianity these days has little to do with Jesus.

But Jesus has his spokespeople-and they are not all in the church. I recently came across a website run by He Gets Us. I have no idea who these people are and cannot vouch for them except to say that they seem to “get” Jesus in a way that a lot of us in the church don’t. A message on their site states:

“Jesus understood what life was like for people in his day — especially for the marginalized. He was drawn to those on the fringes because he was one too: An immigrant. Homeless. Arrested. Bullied. Through it all, Jesus welcomed outcasts, stood up for women, hung out with troublemakers, even befriended enemies. He did it because of his radical love, empathy, and acceptance for all of us…Jesus’ radical compassion stands in stark contrast to all current hate and intolerance.”

The group claims not to be affiliated with any church or denomination, though it is the initiative of a charitable foundation controlled by the Church of the Servant in Oklahoma City. How passing strange it is that we need a group outside the church to clarify for the world who Jesus is. Have we really gotten Jesus so terribly wrong that he can no longer be recognized among us? Has the cross become so empty of meaning that it can be hijacked by racist mobs? Has the Bible become no more than a rabbit foot for authoritarian leaders exploit for photo opps? Is Jesus nothing more than the embodiment of white American middle class respectability? These are not rhetorical questions, nor are they of recent vintage. They are as old as Jesus’ query to his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” As Saint Peter learned, the answer cannot be given in a glib one line response. It must be revealed within communities for whom Jesus is Shepherd; communities that read the Bible through the prism of Jesus; communities in whom the mind of Christ is formed through worship, prayer, generosity and service; communities that understand themselves to be resident aliens with no true citizenship anywhere but under the reign of God Jesus proclaims; communities that know the only way to serve God is to serve, rescue, heal, advocate for and stand with those deemed “least” among the human family.

Here is a poem by Maya Angelou that speaks of what disciples of Jesus recognize as the reign of God and the way along which the Good Shepherd would lead us.

A Brave and Startling Truth

We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

Source: Maya Angelou, The Complete Poetry, (c. 2015 by the Estate of Maya Angelou; pub. by Penguin Random House, LLC.) Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was a multi-talented American poet, author, singer, dancer and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She is perhaps best known for her well known autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969. The book earned her the National Book Award. Angelou was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2010. You can read more about Maya Angelou and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

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