Sunday, August 13, 2023

Phil Kniss: It’s all for love

Patience both ways
2 Peter: True to the Root
2 Peter 3:1-11a, 14-15a, 17-18; Matthew 24:42-44

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It won’t surprise you to hear me admit
I’m not big into preaching about the apocalypse and the last days.
For most of my four decades of preaching,
I have held at arm’s length these NT apocalyptic texts
about the second coming
and the importance of being ready and alert
because Jesus will come like a thief in the night.
If there were other texts available,
and I was given an easy out, I took it.

Part of that, to be honest, is some spiritual trauma
I incurred in my childhood and adolescence in the 1960s and 70s.
I’ve told you some about that from this pulpit,
the movies we brought into the church, like Thief in the Night,
and some others about being left behind in the rapture,
and evangelistic preachers and books and Christian rock music
all reinforced our fear that we would miss out on the rapture.
I nearly wore out the needle on my turntable
listening to Larry Norman. Here’s a short clip [video].

In my early teens I endured more than one sleepless night,
worrying I would be left behind for some sin I committed
that I wasn’t even aware of.

So as a preacher, for many years, I just looked the other way
when these texts were given as an option by the lectionary.

Trouble is, when preaching from a lectionary,
it’s hard to keep avoiding, year after year and year,
the scriptures you’d rather not deal with.

Whether the old faithful Revised Common Lectionary,
or the newer Narrative Lectionary,
neither one cuts me a break,
they both keep shoving these apocalyptic scriptures at me,
saying, here, preach it, preach it.

So in the last 10 years or so, I’ve been doing it more.
I think I’ve preached as many sermons on the second coming
in the last ten years,
as I did my first 30 years of preaching.
Maybe I’m getting bolder, or maybe I ran out of excuses.
But I find the more time I spend in these texts,
and the more I immerse myself in the
social and religious context they emerged from,
the more I love them, and am actually drawn toward them.

It takes some adaptation, for our context,
but they are relevant, and needed, I believe,
if we understand them more deeply and authentically.

I’ll just be frank and say that we Mennonites,
and the most of Christian evangelical world,
have long been drawing the wrong conclusion from these texts.

Yes, there are many who find courage and hope
in the notion that Christ is coming, sooner rather than later,
to extract us from this evil world and take us away to heaven.
For those whose lives in this world are nearly unbearable,
I don’t fault them for holding on
to an escapist view of the end times.

But I would say, emphatically,
I don’t believe it was the intent of Jesus,
or the Gospel writers documenting Jesus,
to instill fear and dread into the psyche of the disciples,
nor to convince the church of Jesus that God’s #1 goal
was to safely remove them all from this earth,
before God obliterated the earth,
and condemned to hell all the people
who hadn’t accepted Jesus or prayed the sinners’ prayer.

A God that would do such a thing,
is not a God I recognize from the scriptures.
I think it’s a God we created,
prompted by the American church in the 60s and 70s
that felt highly threatened by all the
social and political turmoil and change going on.
It was our contextual response to a season of civil unrest
and the social decline of the church,
and then it got institutionalized in evangelical theology,
and it hasn’t gone away.
Apocalyptic Christian movies haven’t gone away, either.
This one, Heaven’s War, came out just three years ago.

In fact,
the continuing marginalization of the church in Western culture,
keeps on fueling this battle mindset of the church against the world,
and it still fires up the culture wars among Christians,
and stokes the fires of the political polarization
we are seeing even today.
We end up with Christian churches and preachers
obsessed with a God doing war against the world,
and calling us Christians to join the battle to the death.
Is it any wonder the close association of God and guns,
on bumper stickers, t-shirts, and placards
wherever there are angry people protesting
against the so-called deep state.

I want to suggest this morning,
that the best antidote for this violent mindset
and corruption of religion,
is a better and truer reading of these apocalyptic scriptures.

We start with the most basic affirmation of God’s character—
God’s love and compassion for this world and all humankind.
Can we all agree to make that our foundation,
and build on that?

So what was our God of love and compassion
most concerned about in the first century of the church
in the Roman Empire?

God sent Jesus into our world as an expression of love, not terror.
Jesus came for the healing and reconciliation of all creation. All!
John 3:16-17:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not perish
but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world
to condemn the world
but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

As I said from this pulpit in my last sermon on this topic,
just a few months ago,
the resurrection of Jesus was evidence
to his followers that the hope
of a political deliverance from Rome wasn’t over.
The cross may have looked like a loss.
But Jesus defeated Herod and Caesar with the empty tomb.
Jesus would soon return with the angels of heaven,
they believed,
and would take vengeance on the evildoers who killed him.
He would sit on David’s throne in Jerusalem, as prophesied,
and execute justice and judgement
against the Empire and everyone responsible
for his crucifixion.
The real world, here and now, would be made right—
for the Jews, and for everyone else.

That’s what “salvation” meant, it seems,
for the first Jewish followers of Jesus.
But that definition of salvation made sense
only if Jesus’ return was very soon,
before winter turned to spring and summer.
So the imminent return of Jesus to set things right in their world,
was the dominant mindset of early Christians.

As the faith spread into new churches popping up
all over the Empire,
this view started to seem less realistic and relevant.
Not only were they far away from Jerusalem,
where this was all supposed to take place,
it didn’t seem as urgent to
Greek-speaking Jewish Christians in Asia Minor.
And even less urgent to Gentile believers.

So, Jesus started to fade in importance in the scattered church.
Some called him a fraud outright.
And one of their big arguments was, “See?
He didn’t return as he promised!
He’s dead and gone and irrelevant.”
Remember, this was before the Gospels and the Epistles
were familiar to the church,
long before they were considered to be scripture.
Before there was a well-established Christology.
So as Jesus and his teachings faded for some,
their ethical framework faded as well.
All manner of morally corrupt behaviors became commonplace,
even among leaders of the church,
including abuse of power, exploitation of others,
and they started looking more like their neighbors,
more like the Empire.

This is why the writer of 2 Peter wrote in v. 3 . . .
“In the last days (in other words, now) scoffers will come,
jeering, living by their own cravings, and saying,
“Where is the promise of his coming? . . .
Nothing has changed.”

You see, in its proper context,
that statement makes complete sense.
And so does the rest of 2 Peter, and the Gospel of Matthew.
They are speaking to present reality on the ground.

The point is not to scare people out of hell,
and whisk them off to heaven.
The point is to remind people
of God’s deep and everlasting love and patience.

Listen, v.9:
“The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness,
but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish
but all to change their hearts and lives.”
And v. 15:
“Consider the patience of our Lord to be salvation.
Therefore, dear friends, since you have been warned in advance,
be on guard so that you aren’t led off course
into the error of sinful people,
and lose your own safe position.
Instead, grow in the grace and knowledge
of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.”

It’s all for love, that God is being patient with us.
God’s heart, God’s deepest desire,
is to see the human race reconciled to each other,
and reconciled to God,
and all creation reconciled as well.
God big project is a shalom project—
where all are whole and complete,
and living the lives they were created to live.
God is not in a hurry to shut down the project.
And we should have the same mindset,
the same love toward our world today,
and keep our eyes on Jesus.

2 Peter is a call for Jesus-followers to be patient,
because God is patient.
And what looks like “slowness” or inaction
from a human point of view,
looks like love and compassion from a God point of view.

That kind of thinking is a great antidote
against the fear-based, church-against-the-world,
mindset that grips so many people today
who call themselves Christian,
and who resort to ways of violence and coercion
and political foul play
to bring about the kind of world they believe is the right one.

Let us, instead, because of love,
be patient,
as God is patient.
Let us be strong and bold in our witness,
but let that witness be steeped in love,
and look like love.
And let God be in charge of any timeline.
Yes, there is a place for accountability in God’s economy.
This doesn’t do away with the judgment side of God.
But love and reconciliation always come to forefront.
That is the message of scripture.

I think that attitude and point of view is entirely consistent
with a careful reading of these apocalyptic scriptures.
And it’s a truer reading,
than what Hal Lindsey and others gave us 50 years ago,
and which still shape Christianity today.

It’s all for love.

Let us confess our faith together.
Before we do, go ahead and turn to Voices Together #407.
Or just follow what’s on the screen.
We will go immediately into singing that hymn,
when we finish the confession,
in which I incorporated some phrases from the hymn.

one In a wounded world that often overwhelms us,
we are tempted to long for our escape to another world,
rather than wait for your promised restoration,
and your return to us, 
and to this world of ours that you still love.
all Come, Lord Jesus.
one Help us view the present through the promise,
all “Christ will come again.”
one Help us trust despite the deepening darkness,
all “Christ will come again.”
one May we let our daily actions witness,
all “Christ will come again.”
one May we make this hope our guiding premise,
all “Christ will come again.” (Phil Kniss, adapted from Thomas Troeger)

—Phil Kniss, August 13, 2023

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