Somewhere around thirty-five years ago, protestant churches in the United States realized that the practice of going to church on Sunday was no longer just a normal thing that people did. So in an effort to reverse declining membership trends, churches like ours said: We need to make coming to church a more comfortable experience for those who aren’t sure about it.
They said: Don’t worry about dressing up, do bring your coffee, we’ll switch out sermons for power point presentations, we’ll switch out organ music for something like classic rock. If you’ve been staying away from the Church because worship is kind of weird, you’re not wrong, but we’re trying to fix that.
And just like well-meaning parents who offer to chaperone your senior prom, protestant churches in the nineties made this promise: Don’t worry. We won’t embarrass you in front of your friends!
And bless their hearts…
Now many of the initiatives introduced during this era have been refreshingly helpful. If you want to drink coffee in church, you’ll get no objection from me! But these days, churches like ours are beginning to come to terms with the fact that we really are kind of weird. It’s a strange thing to spend a Sunday morning in a breathtaking sanctuary, to sing alongside other people —some who you don’t even know! Listening to a sermon, speaking a prayer out loud— these are strange things to do, but that’s okay. In fact, that’s very good.
These days, it is no longer normal to go to church. But it’s also true that there’s nothing normal about the Gospel. We’re over here trying to do something together as a people that is far more hopeful and more important than being normal.
Today our scripture comes to us from Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia. What happened was there were leaders of the early church who were going around teaching people: Look, if you want to become Christian, the first step is to convert to Judaism, the foundation of our faith. Men need to get circumcised. Everyone needs to follow the Torah. Our faithfulness to the law will lead to following the path of Christ, and we will be saved.
Once Paul catches a whiff of this teaching, he loses his mind. See Paul believes that salvation comes to us as a gift of God’s grace. He doesn’t want these preachers telling people they have to get circumcised or keep kosher in order to be saved. We can’t save ourselves by doing the work of the law. Salvation comes from believing in the grace of Jesus.
Now you might notice this argument is the same one we’ve been hearing from Paul for the past few weeks; the content is no surprise.
What is striking is that Paul is furious. He doesn’t even start the letter with the customary greetings. No, I hope this letter finds you well, how are the kids, how is your mother… none of the standard pleasantries! It’s like he’s writing in all caps:
HOW COULD YOU GALATIANS HAVE FALLEN FOR THE CON THESE OTHER PREACHERS ARE RUNNING? WHO BEWITCHED YOU?!
Not all of Paul’s letters are like this. Some give pastoral instruction. Some present a systematic theology. In this one, you can tell something triggered Paul’s soul. His passion comes bubbling through his words, and it is clear. The very heart of Paul’s faith is what’s at stake.
The problem is the Galatians have heard about the crucifixion of Jesus. They know the theory. They know God took the cross, and turned it into the promise of salvation, and yeah that’s fine, whatever.
Now we’ve got Paul saying, What?! That’s fine? Whatever? It’s one thing to know what the cross means. It is another thing entirely to have the event of the cross matter. It should mean something to your life!
Hearing Paul’s outrage reminds me of a joke I heard from Jon Stewart which went something like: Christians are so funny about Easter. You have this story where the Son of God comes back from the dead in order to save humanity and take away the power of death forever! That’s amazing! Then you’ve got one guy who says, Yeah, but you know what the holiday’s missing, how ‘bout we add some chocolate eggs!
It happened like this. When Jesus died on the cross, the curtain in the temple got ripped in two. In Paul’s faith, what God did with the cross ripped in half the fabric of the universe. When God launched the resurrection in order to conquer the crucifixion, this instigated a new creation. As scholar Richard Swanson puts it, the work of the Messiah was to flip the world right side up.1https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2019/06/17/a-provocation-second-sunday-after-pentecost-june-23-2019-galatians-323-29/ Because of what God did with the cross, nothing will ever be normal again. If the promise of the Gospel matters to the Galatians —if it matters to us— we won’t let the world stay the same, not when we could help bring about the world God is envisioning…
These days it has become popular for Christians to say that Jesus had to die on the cross in order to save us from our sins. It’s normal to repeat this claim and accept it without thinking through what it means. We might hear that Jesus died to save us, we might sing that line in a hymn. We might say, Yeah… That’s fine. Whatever.
But I’ve got to tell you. I’m not sure it is fine. For one thing, I’m not sure that it’s true… For another thing, every time we repeat the notion that Jesus had to suffer and die as an act of love, whether we mean to or not, what we’re doing is legitimizing violence. Honestly, that scares me. It scares me that, as Christians, we could become resigned to the inevitability of violence because in our world violence is, well, normal.
When we used to be together in the sanctuary, I would say: If you do not know someone who has been killed by a gun, you are sitting by someone who does. Now even though we’re all in our own homes, I stand by it. I’m pretty sure you know someone who has been killed by gun violence. In the past year, several Prayer Chain requests have been for people in our church family who have been shot.
One thing that’s so difficult about the epidemic of gun violence is it feels like we just don’t know what to do. How many Sundays have I started the service by reading a list of names of people who have been killed in mass shootings! That doesn’t even include people who are killed by quote-unquote “ordinary gun violence”. We wring our hands. We promise our thoughts and prayers and sigh: I mean, it is what it is.
Of course, the phrase “thoughts and prayers” has become code for: Sorry we can’t help. Student activist Emma Gonzalez from Parkland, Florida, said this a few years ago at a rally in Fort Lauderdale: “Every single person up here today… should be home grieving. But instead we are standing together because if all our government and president can do is send thoughts and prayers, then it’s time for the victims to be the change that we need to see.”2https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/17/us/florida-student-emma-gonzalez-speech/index.html
Look, it is not wrong to pray for those who are impacted by gun violence. But when we actually make good on the promise of thoughts and prayers, our thinking and praying illuminate a new side of the problem which is this:
Violence has become so normal, we can’t imagine a world without it.
Unless. What if we could?
What if the Church could lead this charge?
Because you know what… The LORD our God looked at this world, and loved this world, and God came into the world to go with us. And we rose up in violence. Our human sin put Jesus on the cross. But when that happened, it broke.
The curtain in the temple ripped in two, and maybe, so did everything. The whole cosmos split in half! The heart of the LORD our God got shattered because his child just got executed. Afterwards, God looked at the world through the tears in his eyes, and God loved the world, and God came into the world to go with us.
She began picking up shards in her own hands. She picked up the clothes they had ripped off, the weapons that were discarded, all the things wounded and tossed aside…
In their own hands, God goes around gathering the damage from all the violence. Here, come and help me, says the LORD. You can do this too. And maybe salvation happens like this.
I mean, can you imagine if the Church made this our mission? And look, I know nothing about this sounds normal. But nowadays, normal is children having active shooter drills at school. Normal is thoughts and prayers and sorry we can’t help. Normal is resignation to violence because fine, whatever.
You and I know there’s something better than normal! We’re over here with the Gospel in our dreaming, and we could tell a new story of salvation. We can change what is possible by changing what we can imagine.
We could decommission weapons and repurpose them —that’s not beyond the realm of comprehension; that’s an actual thing people can do.
You know the Church could show up on the worst day and pick up the horror in our own hands. We will hold each other’s grief, so nobody is alone.
And the LORD our God will look at this world, and love this world that’s trying to get up from the dead. God will come into the world to go with us, and God will see us gathering the broken pieces. That’s when we will look at God through the tears in our eyes, with our arms overflowing, and Here, says the Holy Spirit. I know. We could take this and make something beautiful.