Reclaiming Jesus: Affirmations 5 and 6 – “MAGA,” “America First,” and “Jesus is Lord”i

21 07 2018

Reclaiming(These are the shortened versions of my last two sermons in this series.)

“Are we smoking what we’re selling!”

That’s how the young pastor tried to get us thinking about whether or not we were . . . practicing what we preach.  He was leading one of the sessions at a conference I attended back at Princeton Seminary a few months ago, and still today, when I reflect on what he said, I have to laugh.

“Are we smoking, what we’re selling!”

When he said it, I looked at the friend sitting next to me, smiled, and thought “Wow, things sure have changed . . . even at Princeton Seminary.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to his topic – namely, Evangelism – I don’t think ANYthing has changed.  We Presbyterians still struggle with one of the most basic elements of our faith – sharing it!  We all know it’s important, and that doing so is central to taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth.  But actually doing it – living that out – well, that’s another story.

Now if you’ve actually read the text of “Reclaiming Jesus: A confession of faith in a time of crisis”, which we’ve been studying for the past several weeks now, then you’re probably saying to yourself, “Wait a minute Bob, I don’t remember seeing anything in there about evangelism.”  But I am more and more convinced that is precisely what affirmation number five is all about: “We believe that Christ’s way of leadership is servanthood, not domination.”

The entire statement is actually a little longer, but this portion sums it all up very nicely; and I’m realizing more and more that really is where evangelism begins . . . with our learning what it means to be a servant.

You see, too many of us think that evangelism is all about telling people what they need to believe. We approached them with this “I’ve got something you need, that I’m going to tell you all about, so that you can have it too.”  That is the nature of much of today’s evangelistic world – it’s a top-down, over-and-above, I-know-it-all, western-savior, way of approaching others.  And that kind of evangelistic fervor tends to make our faith into little more than an intellectual exercise: a head thing, that involves knowledge, and mental ascent to a certain set of Biblical or theological truths, but that in the long run really fails to help people to connect to the God in which we live and move and have our being, or to the Spirit that is burning within each human heart.

But what if this morning’s 5th affirmation can show us another way to be about our evangelistic activity?  What if we replaced the ‘let me tell you what I know’ . . . or ‘let me give you what I already have’ way of approaching others, with something else . . . something a little less offensive?  What if we  replaced what is a very western and American ‘domination’ style of evangelism, with something a little different?

You see the way of Jesus was never about domination; rather it was about servanthood.  And these days in particular, serving others seems to have given way to the powers of domination in ways that are doing tremendous damage, and in all kinds of tragic ways!  And so it is critical for us in the Church to once again, revisit the subject of servanthood, and particularly as it relates to evangelism.

I have to believe that if James and John knew that this story about their encounter with Jesus read this morning, was still being told today, they would be completely embarrassed.  Because there’s no way to tell it, or interpret it, in a manner that doesn’t make them look extremely arrogant and egotistical.  Scripture tells us in other places that they, along with Peter, were perhaps a little closer to Jesus than the other 9 disciples . . . and here, by asking for the two most important places of honor in the coming kindom, it’s like they’re just trying rub the faces of their friends in that reality.  They’re trying to upstage them, and confirm how close they really are to Jesus . . . how much better they are than everyone else.  And those feelings are exposed for all the world to see, which is kinda’ embarassing.

In fact, interestingly, when Matthew copies this story, and tells it in his version of the Gospel, he doesn’t have James and John asking for these seats of honor.  He has their mother, Salome, do it.  Mom is the one who is made to look a little arrogant, and pushy.

But what is particularly awkward in Mark is that this encounter with the Zebedee brothers comes right after Jesus had been talking about humility, and his impending death.  So having this kind of a conversation had to have been a little disheartening for him.  First, there was not even the slightest bit of humility in their request; and second, the disciples still didn’t appear to be even remotely interested in talking with Jesus about his dying.  So Jesus had to have wondered when his friends were going to catch on.  They were so painfully clueless, and for so long, that he had to have wondered when they were going to realize that in God’s kindom, greatness was not measured the way it’s measured in the world!

And the same is true today.  Greatness is not determined by how high one is exalted above everyone else; by audacious displays of wealth and power.  Being great is not measured by our ability to oppress of others; name-calling, and putting others down, so that we might be lifted up.  Being great is not about haughty demands for loyalty, or respect; and certainly it is never built on the persecution or demonization of others.  Being great, at least according to Jesus, begins with humility and ends with servanthood.

And when we think about this in terms of a new model of evangelism, I think it might become not just a little easier, but a little more like the way of Jesus.

So what if, rather than thinking of sharing our faith as telling people about Jesus, or even inviting them to worship . . . what if rather than trying to tactfully broach the subject of God, or Jesus; or thinking that we have to be ready to answer all of peoples’ questions about the Bible, and since we’re Presbyterian, predestination . . . what if in place of all that we just understood evangelism as learning to serve others?

We live in a culture where domination is encouraged, admired, and rewarded.  Everyone seems to be about gaining power, and lauding it over everyone else.  But that was never the way of the Christ.  And still today, it should never be the way of Christ followers.

Affirmation 6 is perhaps the hardest portion of this new confession for me to deal with, primarily because it speaks so bluntly to the political situation in which we find ourselves today.  It reads as follows:  We believe Jesus when he tells us to go into all nations and make disciples.  Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries. (So) we in turn should (then) love and serve the world and all its inhabitants, rather than seek first narrow, nationalistic prerogatives.  Therefore, we reject “America First” as a theological heresy for followers of Christ; (for) while we share a patriotic love for our country, we reject xenophobic or ethnic nationalism that place one nation over others as a political goal.

 Those are hard words for me to utter from this pulpit!  Not because I don’t believe them, or because it is in any way inappropriate for them to spoken here in a place of Christian worship; but because they point to the countercultural aspect of the Gospel that makes many of us extremely uncomfortable.  Most of you I think know that I am quick to say all the time that we are citizens of heaven before we are ever citizens of the United States of America; but rejecting the idea of “America First” – and actually saying that out loud – so sounds so harsh, and a week after we just celebrated the 4th of July, so . . . unpatriotic.

So let me point out this confession of faith is not born in any kind of disrespect, or resentment towards, our country, a country that we ALL love.  Rather, it comes from a place of honest discernment, as people of faith attempt to wrestle with what it means to truly confess that Jesus is Lord!  Because that statement challenges the patriotic allegiances of citizens of every country, and it is far more political than we sometimes realize or want to admit.

You see, that title, Lord, is a political title.  I know that today we want to think of it as being spiritual; but 2000 years ago, that was simply not the case.  In fact throughout the Bible as a whole, the concept of ‘Lord’ is extremely political.  The title King, was, and remains, a political title!  And those titles, and a few others like them, were given to Jesus because they were the faith community’s attempt to say that their allegiance was to God, before any Emperor that might be sitting on any earthly throne . . . in Rome, or anywhere else.  And that was a concept important to any profession of faith.  Empire theology was so prevalent, and the call to an allegiance to Rome was so strong, that Jesus’ message was all about shifting peoples’ attention from the state, to God.  And so whether we like it or not, Gospel was, and remains, extremely political.

Now interestingly, there are two words that we have to consider this morning, that actually have a great deal in common: and they are religion and politics.  The Latin word ‘religio’ means to reconnect: that’s what religion, and spirituality, seek to do – they reconnect us to someone more, something greater, something beyond us!  The word ‘polis’, from which we get the world politics, means city or public forum where people come together and     . . . reconnect.  You see religion and politics are BOTH about people connecting, and how we actually do that! They address our life together, life in community, and thus in so many ways are really inseparable.

While we in this country advocate the separation of church and state, we do not, we cannot, ever, advocate a separation between faith and politics.  And there’s a huge difference. You see, if we truly believe that our faith is at the very heart of who we are, then it must impact and affect everything about it, including our politics.

So while we may not want to push our Church traditions, rituals, or practices on others, there are basic beliefs that people of all faith hold in common, and that when agreed upon, can rightly become law.  And that is not forbidden by any American concept of the separation of Church and State.  That separation was designed NOT to keep people from exercising moral or ethical propositions, but rather it was designed to safeguard religious freedom, and to ensure that our government would never be dominated by a single religion’s practices or traditions.  But as far as out faith goes, that MUST impact our politics.  Because both are all about how we do life together; and for Christ-followers, both must be about the way of Jesus.

So while we need to vehemently avoid partisanship in the Body of Christ, politics is something else altogether: for the Gospel is nothing, if it’s not political.  And that’s the first thing that needs to be acknowledged as we consider affirmation number six this morning.  Scripture’s use of political titles for Jesus, and the symbiotic relationship between religion and politics, means that as people of faith and followers of Jesus, we MUST be dealing with the issues surrounding our life together.  How we treat others is at the heart of both what it means to religious, and what it means to be political.

Second, let’s take this a little further.  The ‘life together’, about which we are called to be concerned, both religiously and politically, knows no boundaries.  Jesus tells his disciples to go to ALL the nations, not just to Israel.  Why?  Because God’s concern is everyone – all people, everywhere.  Our faith impacts not just how we treat Americans, but how we treat everyone . . . because . . . we are citizens of God’s kindom before we are citizens of America.

So that means that we’re not just concerned about the kids over in our nursery this morning; but we’re also concerned about the kids who have yet to be united with their parents down on our southern border, and the kids who were just miraculously rescued from that cave in Thailand. We’re not just interested in alleviating homelessness in America’s inner cities or the unemployment impacting rural America.  We also want to address the homelessness on the streets of Moscow, Mumbai, and Manila; and the 95% unemployment rate in Zimbabwe, and the 77% unemployment rate in Burkina Faso.  We are not just concerned about American women saying “Me too” and standing up to the sexism here in this country; but we’re also called to stand with the women being oppressed in so much of Arab world, and any place where women are still being marginalized and not allowed to have control over their own lives.

You see, we are not just members of the Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church family.  We’re part of the larger community of Alexandria.  We’re part of National Capital Presbytery, and a denomination, that exists all around this country . . . and the world.  And because Presbyterians are just part of the Church . . . because there are Southern Baptists in Texas, and Mennonites in Pennsylvania;  and because there are Coptic Christians in Egypt, and Eastern Orthodox Christians in the Ukraine . . . AND, perhaps more importantly, because a person’s faith is really irrelevant when it comes to the way we treat them . . . we need to be thinking all people, everywhere!  Because we are part of the human family, that exists in every corner of the globe, we have no choice but to see beyond our national borders.  So any action or behavior that in any way does harm to ANYONE, ANYWHERE, even when some would have us believe it is in our ‘national interest’, must be challenged by the Body of Christ.  For our concern is not just for America, but for the world – not just for Americans, but for all of God’s children, everywhere!

Friends, our family . . . our siblings in Christ . . . the human family . . . takes us way beyond the redwood forests and the Gulf stream waters.  National boarders mean little, if anything, when it comes to the Kindom of God.  And that doesn’t mean that Christ-followers shouldn’t be good Americans, or good citizens of whatever country we may call home; but it does mean that we are citizens of God’s kindom before we are citizens anywhere else.

When it comes to the Gospel, and Jesus’ call to go to ALL nations, the root of that challenge is the reality that all people matter to our God.  American’s?  Yes!  But also Nigerians and Cameroonians, Ecuadorians and Brazilians, Palestinians and Jordanians, Iraqis and Afghanis.  And as far as whose first?  Well, before we attempt to answer that, we would do well to these words of Jesus: “many who are first will be last, and many who are last, will be first.”

So let’s go to all the nations, and not with the message “America First,” but with a different message . . . one more in line with the message of the one we call Lord.



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