Living Jesus: calls us to confession
Our worship on 5/25 went a direction I did not anticipate. I thought we would talk about how Jesus calls and sends disciples, commissioning us to share his life with the world. But when the creative team for this series read Matthew 28:16-20, they felt torn. Surely the "Great Commission" has caused a lot of trouble for a lot of people. How can we celebrate our commission without also confessing how wrong we've gone with it?
So, a challenge. How to plan a liturgy of confession where we tell the truth about the mistakes in our heritage and the mistakes in our present form of life together? We came up with a rhythm of scripture, song, homily, and prayer that helped us give voice to our corporate confession.
We can't publish the recording of the whole thing, so we'll provide an outline here so you can follow along. "Enjoy" isn't quite right. "Endure," perhaps; and "Engage."
1. Listen to "Song for My Family" by the Michael Gungor Band.
3. Read the first homily, "Compelle Intrare (Still?)":
Living Jesus’s last instructions to his disciples before he disappeared from their sight was that they should “Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them.” Though he himself had never left the tiny strip of land between Galilee and Jerusalem, he intended that his followers would become world travelers for his sake, carrying the gospel from Jerusalem to the surrounding towns of Judea, to the countryside of Galilee in the north, throughout the cities of the ancient near east and eventually into Europe.
Today, a couple of thousand years later, about one-third of the world’s population is Christian. And surely this is due in part to the wildly optimistic efforts of evangelistic missionaries who leave their homes for distant shores, so deeply invested in the good news of God’s kingdom that they are driven to share it with the furthest corners of the world. Indeed, the population center of Christianity has recently shifted away from the northern hemisphere in the west – Europe and North America – to the southern hemisphere in the west and the east – South America, Africa, and, increasingly, Asia. I recently met a man whose parents were missionaries to California from South Korea. The Living Jesus continues to call and send people to repeat his message of God’s just and merciful reign throughout the world.
But even as we appreciate the efforts of those who have traded comfort and ease for the difficult itinerant life of mission work in foreign lands, we must acknowledge that conversion of the foreigner has not always been such a merciful endeavor. The church through the ages has at times adopted the doctrine of compelle intrare – “compel them to enter” – as a way to justify forced conversion of those who have no inkling of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Constantine, 4th century emperor of the Roman Empire, in the earliest manifestation of compelle intrare, dreamt that his armies carried the cross of Christ into battle and soundly defeated his enemy. He had the crucifix painted on every soldier’s shield and cast his war as a holy one.
The following centuries saw the church cooperating with the ruling governmental powers so thoroughly that soldiers conducted baptisms by physical force and threat of death. In the Spanish Inquisition of the 14th century, for example, the church served the state by “converting” thousands upon thousands of Muslims and Jews, “making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” just like Jesus said. It was conventional wisdom that conquering powers would have more control if the conquered people shared the religion of their conquerors.
So when we hear the living Jesus instruct his first disciples and, by extension, us, to “go into all the world and make disciples,” we hear those words with a pang of dis-ease. We know that God’s reign is the best news we’ve ever heard. It is saving our lives every day, this hidden truth that God is in charge, that eventually God gets everything God wants, that what God wants is us, all of us, at home in God’s heart. But we also know how often, and for how long, this good news has been twisted into something ugly, something violent, a kind of cultural superiority, a means of political dominance. We are rightly hesitant to be counted among those who have done violence to the bodies or psyches of those we sought to “save.”
We hear Matthew earlier describe Jesus’ own way of announcing God’s reign. He was quiet about it, often asking people not to advertise what he had done for them. Matthew says he fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy in this way: he did not wrangle, which I take to mean he didn’t argue his case forcefully; he did not cry out, his voice was not heard. He was a gentle evangelist, always aware that some within his hearing were broken stalks, like tomato plants that get top-heavy, bending under the weight of their own life, and have to be gently staked, stalks tied tenderly to a lattice that will help them grow toward the sun. He knew that some among his listeners were dimly burning wicks, lanterns with little oil remaining, in danger of being extinguished by the slightest breeze. Jesus practiced a way of being that was compelling because it was attentive to exactly this quality in the people who came to him. With great care, with tender mercies, he probed their pain and offered relief.
So we, when we hear living Jesus commission us for the work of evangelism, must keep in mind that it is not for our glory or our growth that we would go to all nations, or even talk to a friend, about what we know to be true concerning God’s reign. It’s not about us, not about growing our church or being part of something big and powerful or even sustainable. It’s not about validating our own radical commitment to this radical way of life. It’s not about winning.
It’s about being attentive to the hungers all around us, the hunger for a little bit of good news, the thirst for something that relativizes and relieves the brutality of life out there. Do we have a word for those who suffer, whether from circumstances of their own making or from things that have been done to them? Do we have a gentle way of sharing the life-giving news that the living Jesus is with us, working still to scoop us up and bring us home to God’s heart?
We confess that the church in every age has confused the motives for evangelism. We confess that the church in this age has broken a lot of bruised reeds and quenched innumerable dimly burning wicks. We confess, and ask forgiveness from our God who is forgiving.
4. Listen to "Hands and Feet" by The Brilliance.
5. Read the second homily, "(Not Quite) Panta ta Ethné":
When living Jesus said, “Go make disciples of all nations,” what he actually said was “panta ta ethne,” all the nations, which means living Jesus was way ahead of us on the “all the things” meme. He really is amazing.
More importantly, when living Jesus said “all the nations,” “panta ta ethne,” ethne is the word almost always translated “Gentiles,” meaning, everybody who’s not Jewish. Meaning, everybody who was left out of the original plan of salvation. Meaning, us.
This would have hurt the ears of Matthew’s original readers, I guarantee it. They were Jewish believers who had accepted Jesus as the Jewish messiah, the one sent by God to redeem Israel, not the ethne, not the nations, not the Gentiles, not us. According to the gospels Jesus occasionally healed a Gentile, sometimes had a conversation with one, but he never ever sat down to eat a meal with a Gentile. The divide between Jewish believers and those Gentile outsiders who also hungered for the reign of God was the central conflict of the early church, the one that is addressed in every book and epistle in the New Testament.
But according to Matthew, Gentiles were among the toddler Jesus’s first admirers. The wise men from the East were decidedly not Jewish, and their weird baby gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh foreshadowed a time when, according to the prophets, the nations would stream to the sound of his voice and bow in reverence at his feet. Grown-up Jesus, then, sends his first disciples to all the nations, all the Gentiles, all the ethnic outsiders, to proclaim the good news that they are in.
If the gospel we preach, then, is inherently inclusive of all people; if the earliest conflict in the church had to do with ethnic pride and ethnic exclusion, the result of which is that we are here, we Gentiles, having been included, finally, as Jesus asked; why is it that 2,000 years later the most segregated hour of the week, as Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out, is still 11 a.m. on Sunday morning? Or, in our case, 5 p.m. on Sunday evening.
According to a Rice University sociologist in research conducted for Hartford Seminary, only about 2% of Protestant congregations in the United States are significantly multiracial, with no one ethnic group comprising more than 80% of the congregation. Knowing this to be true, one of the founding documents for Galileo Church explicitly named racial diversity as a goal for our new church, especially given that the metroplex is becoming increasingly racially diverse and Mansfield enjoys an extraordinary mix of ethnicities in its neighborhoods and Millennials are known to have multiracial friendship groups in numbers unprecedented in previous generations. But look around, y’all. We are really, really white. I’m sure that your workplaces and schools don’t look like this. My neighborhood doesn’t look like this. So what is up with the church?
I don’t have an answer for that. But it bugs. And it should. When God gets everything God wants, all the ethne, all the nations will sit down at table together. Aren’t we meant to be practicing for that now? Aren’t we trying to be formed into people who want what God wants? Well, God wants this hour, the hour we spend in communal contemplation of God’s beauty, to be desegregated. Living Jesus said so. Panta ta ethne, all the ethnicities. Everybody previously excluded is now in. And it’s our job to get that done.
We confess that the church in every age has excluded entire races of people from the celebration of God’s reign. We confess that the church in this age has settled for the uneasy peace of congregational segregation by race and ethnicity. We confess, and ask forgiveness from our God who is forgiving.
6. Listen to "Help Is Round the Corner" by Coldplay.
7. Read the third homily, "We Could Be the New Them":
A friend of mine asked his third grade class to draw pictures of the Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” in the King James, or “Treat others as you want to be treated,” in the vernacular of public school.
Children drew pictures of themselves sharing cookies from their lunch and taking turns on the playground. But one child, a mopey little boy who was always the victim of the bullying impulses of bigger kids, drew a beach, a long seashore by a beautiful blue ocean. On the beach were two figures, the larger one kicking sand into the face of the smaller one, who was crying. My friend the teacher said, “It’s lovely, friend, but how is this an illustration of the Golden Rule?” The little boy took his picture back and wrote a caption at the bottom: “Whatever you do, don’t do this.” Sometimes the negative example is the most helpful.
There’s almost no one here who never encountered a church before Galileo, who never took part in a community of people gathered for the stated purpose of worshiping the God who draws us together. And there’s almost no one here who doesn’t understand how wrong that can go, how dangerous it is for a church to decide that it knows how to do that. Churches have done a lot of awful things in the name of the God they worship, a lot of awful things in their declared discipleship of Jesus. They may have done awful things to you.
So it’s tempting, in light of our collective experience with the churches of our past, to draw that picture over and over again: the hard-hearted church kicking sand in the faces of the little ones, the ones who don’t fit in, the ones whose lives or beliefs or identities don't square with the mainstream. We could preach it every week: Here is the big, bullying church of our past. Whatever you do, don’t do this.
The only thing is, if we park our message there, in the negative example, it’s amazing how fast we become the heroes of our own stories. It’s amazing how argumentative we become, naming our own counter-cultural beliefs as the new orthodoxy to which all others must conform or be condemned – if not by God, at least by us, when we’re together and feeling safe and enjoying the miracle by which we have found each other.
Jesus’ own evangelistic way can sometimes be read that way – that he argued vigorously, presenting new and powerful interpretations of God’s work in the world, condemning those who didn’t see what he saw. They were blind to the beauty, he sometimes said. They were deaf to the truth. And as we discover the new ways that God is revealed in our lives, we often say the same – that the people who can’t see it are blind, that we have been given eyes to see, thanks be to God.
But here is the best reason for our liturgy of confession tonight: that we don’t want to do that, we don’t want to become another church that thinks it’s got it all figured out. We don’t want to wrangle – Jesus didn’t wrangle, Matthew said; and we don’t want to shout – Jesus didn’t shout, Matthew said. Even as we look for ways to share the gospel, the good news of God’s reign, as living Jesus called us to do, we remember how careful we must be with our own self-assessment in light of that gospel. We are not the center of the universe. We are not a perfect church. We are a broken community of broken people, drawn together for healing and celebration by the God who makes beautiful things out of dust.
We confess that the church in every age has pretended a monopoly on God. We confess that the tendency remains for the church in this age, even this church, to be smug and self-righteous in our proclamation of what we’re sure we’ve finally got right. We confess, and ask forgiveness from our God who is forgiving.
8. Listen to "Dirty Feet" by Dear Saint Isaac.
9. Pray the prayer Joel wrote, riffing on Psalm 103:
O God of forgiveness,
we rejoice in your making all things new,
which includes us, broken and undeserving as we are.
You make all things right.
You put victims of all kinds of evil back on their feet.
You make whole what was broken.
You are sheer mercy and grace.
You don’t fly into fits of rage at our every mistake,
but you’re enduringly patient, rich in love.
You don’t nag and scold us whenever we err,
and you don’t grudgingly hold our sins over our heads.
You don’t treat us for who we are,
broken, selfish people prone to sinful habits and oppressive systems
In spite of all we do, and say, and think, and feel,
You forgive us.
Though our hands are muddied and covered in blood,
You wash us clean.
Though we are injured and scarred,
You heal us.
Though we are broken,
You make us whole.
You have forgiven us;
as far as sunrise is from sunset,
so far have you separated us from our sins.
We are forgiven!
And so we rejoice in our forgiveness,
in the rich love that covers it,
and in the one who says to us, “You are forgiven.”