Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16 ; 1 Corinthians 3:16-23 ; John 21:15-19
I don’t know if any of you caught wind of this in the news, but earlier this week the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a new report on the landscape of U.S. Religious Life. Of the many findings in the report, the one that most news channels latched onto was the fact that “a strong majority of those who are affiliated with a religion, including majorities of nearly every religious tradition, do not believe their religion is the only way to salvation.” This soundbite flew under the banner, “Americans not dogmatic in their approach to religion,” and surprised many whose opinion of American Christians is that we are coercive, narrow-minded or colonialist in our approach to matters of faith and spirituality.
The report came out on Monday and was in my mind as I thought about our observance of the apostles Peter and Paul today. Now, I suppose some of you are wondering why we’re observing saint days in a Lutheran church. Many of us were brought up thinking that was “Catholic stuff” and that good Lutherans avoid anything smacking of veneration of the saints. You may be surprised to know that commemoration of the saints and days associated with their lives and deaths are still on our ecumenical calendars and provided as options for our worship. So I took the option. It’s not just that it’s a long, green season after Pentecost – or that the ordinary texts for today were uninspiring to me – but also that the lives and ministries of the apostles Peter and Paul have something to say to us about what it means to carry the gospel into today’s world.
So I’ve said it, and you’ve noticed, that the altar clothes and the paraments are red again today. There are precious few days in the year when we dress the sanctuary in red – you can probably name them. The last time was Pentecost, when we celebrated the outpouring of the Holy Spirit onto the apostles for power to proclaim the good news of Christ Jesus and the birth of the church. That’s what the color red represents in the visual language of the church – the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. The catholic church, by which I mean the whole church, uses red on Pentecost to remind us of the Spirit’s presence in the church and in our lives. Lutherans bring the red back out for Reformation Sunday at the end of October to celebrate the presence of the Holy Spirit working through Brother Martin to reform the church and to make the good news clear and available to the people in language they could understand. And it’s in that same spirit that we dress the sanctuary in red today – just like we go red for Martin Luther, we go red for the apostles, not out of special deference to them, but to honor the presence of God as Spirit preaching good news and healing the world through them.
That God used Peter and Paul to spread the gospel to the known world should be good news in and of itself to us. Peter, who we hear referred to as Cephas in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians this morning, is also known as the rock on which the church was built (Mt. 16:18). He was head of the church in Jerusalem and led the early Christian movement to the nation of Israel. It was Peter’s encounter with Cornelius (Acts 10) that led the early church to open itself to Gentiles and the delicious passage from Acts that reads, “what God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15, 11:9). That assurance from God that all are made clean in God’s eyes by God’s love is at the heart of the gospel and would have been good news to Peter as well because Peter, you recall, is the one who denied Jesus on the night of his death not just once, but three times. “I do not know this man. I do not know this man. I do not know him.” God transforms the faithlessness of Peter and makes him the cornerstone for the church.
We also remember Paul this morning. Paul whose logic and rhetoric penned the majority of the letters in the New Testament, the earliest pieces of writing from the early church that are available to us. Paul, who took the good news of God in Christ Jesus out of Israel and spread it throughout the Mediterranean, to Greece and eventually to Rome. Paul, who assures us that there is nothing, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” (Rom. 8:38-39) that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. And Paul would have known because Paul, you recall, was the one persecuting the early church – capturing Christians and having them killed. God transforms the rigid dogmatism of Paul and makes him the church’s most passionate preacher and teacher, a man willing to be all things to all people so that all might be saved.
Which brings us back to this question of salvation and religious tolerance and the Pew Forum’s study of the American Religious Landscape. What do we say about these two apostles – the word the scriptures use to describe those who are sent to spread the good news – what do we say about their ministries and their example for us? What do we imagine evangelism to be in this day and age?
First, it may be helpful to point out that our day and age is perhaps more similar to their than any other time since the church’s early years, or at least since the Middle Ages. The Mediterranean world was a cauldron of religious and political cultures, all mixing with one another in close proximity. We’ve lost that sense in the Western Hemisphere over the last two-thousand years, particularly after the colonial era began shipping Northern European culture across the world and converting people, most often by force, to adopt Western patterns of home, family and religious life – what was called “civilizing” the world. Ironically, the Christian faith that colonial Europe brought to North and South America, Asia and Africa is now stronger on those continents than in Europe, where religious affiliation has been declining for many decades.
Even in the United States though, we are living in a time of new religious pluralism. The Pew Study reveals that:
- While only 71% of Americans are absolutely certain that God exists, 78% identify as Christians.
- Among mainline Protestants like ourselves 98% of us believe in God, but what we think that means varies. 72% of us imagine a personal God, the abba God that Jesus prays to like a loving parent. 19% of us imagine God to be an impersonal force, and 7% confess they’re not sure.
- 21% of those Americans who call themselves atheists say they believe in God – a figure I’m not sure how to interpret.
In the midst of our own internal uncertainties, we are – understandably – somewhat lenient with each other:
- 70% of Americans who affiliate with a religious tradition believe that many religions can lead to eternal life – though we’re not in agreement about what eternal life, heaven or hell mean; and
- 68% believe that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their particular religion.
So, like Peter and Paul, we live in a world filled with religious diversity both within each religious community and between them. And, like Peter and Paul, we are called by God in Christ to share good news with the world.
The second thing it may help to remember is that in our calling to share the good news, we are not first on the scene. People have been sharing the good news of God in Christ for two thousand years, and people have been experiencing the goodness of God since the world’s birth. It’s helpful therefore to approach the great commission with some humility.
A little over ten years ago a conference of Asian Christians met in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – on the peninsula south of Thailand. The theme of the conference was “Doing Theology with Asian Resources.” Reading a report from the conference you hear that they struggled with some ambivalence about the history of Christian missionaries from the west – on the one hand grateful for the legacy of missionary work and education, but also frustration that they felt like in adopting Christianity they were being asked to forego their own native culture and traditions. One woman put it this way,
“We need to remember that Jesus was born in western Asia and sought refuge in northern Africa. He never visited the United States.”
So we are reminded that many of our own worship practices do not reflect the cultures of the continents in which the gospel first took root – Asia and Africa.
But finally, at least for this morning, we may confront some of our ambivalence about evangelism by stripping away what we are afraid it may be so that we can remember what it ought to be. We live in a time where it’s almost impossible not to have heard the stories of how Native American families were split apart so that Native children could be “Christianized” in private mission schools, or of similar stories of aboriginal children in Australia. We have no desire to repeat the mistakes of the past, to scare people into the church out of fears about hell – or, perhaps worse, to lure them into church with promises that we’re not that radical anymore. We want to be bold. We want to say that it means something to call yourself a Christian. That the life of discipleship makes a difference. That there is good news to be heard here. But what does that mean?
Evangelist D.T. Niles, who lived and worked in Sri Lanka in the mid-20th century and who was a giant of the ecumenical movement, shares this very simple definition of evangelism, of what it means to be a Christian. He says, “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.”
Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.
Listen for all that is wrapped up in this definition. There is no hierarchy between the one sharing the good news and the one hearing it – both are beggars. Both need what is being offered, and both are asking for a handout from God. No one owns the things being shared, but both need it because it is bread. It is the stuff that we need for life. Sustenance. Community. One person telling another. A story about how hunger was satisfied, needs were met, denials were forgiven, dogmatism was destroyed.
When the risen Christ appears to Peter and John and the disciples after the resurrection in the gospel of John, they share a meal on the beach and then Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. He asks him three times, so that Peter has a chance to counter each of his three denials. He gives Peter a way back from his shame, he heals his broken heart, and then he sends Peter out to build the church with one command, “feed my sheep.” Show my hungry people where to find bread.
Let this be our example then. When we consider the lives of Peter or Paul, or Martin Luther, or D.T. Niles, or Elaine Cutting, or any of us here today or any of us yet to come. When we think about what it means to share the good news, let’s let go of this notion that our job is to convert people and imagine that our only task is to tell the story of what we have found here, bread for the journey, and to invite others to taste the bread that has fed us – that has kept us alive.