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Saturday, March 19, 2011

What’s the Good News?

Luke 14:14-21

Ephesians 2:11-22

Ephesians 2:11-22 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.

Luke 14:12-24 He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’

One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, ‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.” But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.” So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” Then the master said to the slave, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.” ’

In the spring of 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., issued a call to Christian students and seminarians to come to Selma, Alabama, to participate in the civil rights march from Selma to the state capital at Montgomery, and then to work with poor blacks throughout the south to help register them to vote, to tutor children, and to help build bridges across the deep racial divisions in this country. One of the seminarians who answered Dr. King’s call was a graduate of Virginia Military Institute, Jonathan Daniels, who was a student at Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Also active in the civil rights movement was a white Southern Baptist minister from Tennessee named Will Campbell. One night in August of 1965, Preacher Will was having dinner with his brother Joe and with an atheist publisher friend named P.D. East. P.D. loved to antagonize Will about his faith in Christ, and once challenged Will to sum up the message of Christianity in ten words or less. If it really means something important, P.D. insisted, you should be able to narrow it down to ten words. After a long while, Will gave his answer: “We’re all (jerks) but God loves us anyhow.” Now, Will, who is still alive and in his late eighties, used a much saltier work than jerks – but let’s use that word this morning.

As Will and P.D. and Joe sat around after dinner sharing beverages, the phone rang. Will answered the phone, and, after a few minutes, came back to the table in a rage. Jonathan Daniels had just been released from jail with a group of white and black civil rights picketers, and had gone with a few of them to a local store to get some soft drinks. They were met by an off-duty sheriff’s deputy named Thomas Coleman, who pointed his shotgun at one of the teenage girls. Jonathan Daniels pushed her to the ground and caught the full force of Coleman’s shotgun blast, dying instantly. A Roman Catholic priest grabbed another teenager and ran, but was wounded in the back by Coleman’s second shot.

Will Campbell was stunned and furious. He let loose a long string of curses at the deputy who had killed the young seminarian just trying to buy some soft drinks. The atheist P.D. East pounced on Will: Let’s see, Brother Will, whether your definition of Christianity holds up or not. Jonathan Daniels, was he a (jerk)? Campbell answered that Jon Daniels was one of the gentlest and most loving people he’d ever met, and didn’t deserve to die shot by a redneck Alabama sheriff’s deputy. P.D. waved him off: Was Jonathan Daniels a jerk or not? Will gritted his teeth and admitted that even Jon Daniels had probably committed a sin or two in his life. Now, what about Thomas Coleman? Is he a jerk? That, Will said, was a lot easier. Yes, he was a lowdown murdering racist jerk of the first order. Now P.D. closed in for the kill. So, Jonathan Daniels was a jerk, and Thomas Coleman is a jerk. Now, tell me, Preacher, which of those two jerks does your precious Mister Jesus love more?

Will said that as he sat there on that hot August night, suddenly everything became clear for him. All his years of going to church and Sunday School as a little boy, all his college and seminary training, all the theological arguments he had fought and the sermons he had preached and Bible studies he had taught fell away like scales from his eyes. The atheist small town newspaper publisher had shown him the heart of the gospel as he had never known it: Jesus had loved and died for Thomas Coleman every bit as much as he had died for Jonathan Daniels. Jonathan and Thomas were Jesus’ brothers, whether they knew it or not. They were both God’s beloved sons, whether they lived it or not. In God, there was no difference between Thomas and Jonathan. It was all clear as day now.

P.D., Will said, tears streaming down his face, I think I’m going to have to amend my definition. “Go ahead,” P.D. replied, “you’ve got a few words left.” We’re all jerks, and God loves us anyway, but you’re the biggest jerk of them all. Tonight you’ve made a Christian out of me, and it’s about to kill me.[1]

As we think in our Lenten series, with prayer and fasting, about sharing the Good News with our neighbors, we need to be clear about what that Good News is. Have you ever played the group game called, variously, gossip or telephone? You take a large group of people and sit them in a circle. You then whisper in the first person’s ear a somewhat complicated sentence. They turn and repeat it to the person next to them, and so forth around the circle. What happens twenty persons later, when it gets back to the head of the circle? Often, it’s completely unrecognizable. Imagine what twenty centuries of repeating the Good News of Jesus around the circle of the world has done. Ask people to define Christian faith in one sentence, and see what you get. If you’re lucky, you might get John 3:16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not die, but have eternal life. But more often you’re going to get something like the United Methodist church sign I saw Friday: Change begins within, with a little help from above. Or God helps those who help themselves. Or, Just do the best you can, and leave the rest to God. Or, accept Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior.

The writer to the Ephesians understood that in Jesus, God had done something earthshaking. God had come to earth, to become a flesh and blood human being, just like you and me. God had been born, had lived and eaten and drank and laughed and cried just like you and me. And he had suffered, been humiliated and rejected, and had died. That meant that the insurmountable wall between God and human beings, between heaven and earth, between life and death, between hope and despair, between love and hate had been broken down forever. And if God had become human, then all the walls human beings build between each other had come tumbling down as well. When Jesus rose from the dead, it meant that God’s love was stronger than anything human beings could through at it, and would last forever. This was the Great Good News: that all the separations we create between God and ourselves, and between each other, had been bridged by the love of God. Now, not even death could divide us from God, or from each other. We are members of God’s family together and residents in God’s family home.

Jesus talked about that new family in the parable of the banquet. God had sent his servants out to turn over every rock to invite people to come to the great feast. Everyone was invited to the table, and the only people absent were the ones who thought there was anything else more important. God had broken down the divisions – all are invited. The only divisions that remained were those illusions maintained by people who thought that race, or nationality, or money, or politics, or anything else trumped the invitation to join the family at table.

Now, what’s so good about that news is that we’re not brought into the family and invited to the table because of something we’ve done, or because of something we haven’t done – like whatever unforgiveable sin you want to name. We are united with God and with each other because of what God has done by becoming human in Jesus and by triumphing over sin and hate and death. The good news is that if we’ll stop building fences, or pretending like children in the back seat of the car that there’s an imaginary line down the seat that can’t be crossed, then we can experience what it means to be part of an eternal family living out God’s love.

Jonathan Daniels knew Jesus Christ had broken down the walls between him and poor black people in the south, and he died because Thomas Coleman wanted to keep the fences up. What’s the Good News that the world is dying, literally, to hear?

We’re all jerks, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. But God loves us anyhow, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about that, either.

That’s really, really good news. Go tell someone.

[1] Campbell, Will D., Brother to a Dragonfly, Seabury Press, 1977

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