“Who Is Jesus for Us Today?”  

This was the title of the sermon on September 9, 2018, by Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Senior Pastor, Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. (A photograph of the church with its new addition is below.)

Biblical Texts for the Day

 Psalm 8 (NRSV):

“O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”

“O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

 John 1: 45-51 (NRSV):

“Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you get to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’”

 The Sermon[1]

 “The work of the Church is fundamentally a teaching task: asking questions, seeking answers, exploring possibilities – and then translating all of that into life between Sundays. . . .”

“Christianity is never settled for any of us, no matter our age or the extent of our involvement in church. The world is always changing. If our faith is not similarly dynamic, not living, not rising to the challenges we see all around us, not attuned to the context in which we live, it will slowly wither away. . . .”

“Actually there’s something appealing to the notion that what happens in churches can be hazardous to the status quo. Powerful worship is subversive; it wants to upend the dominant ethos. A church ought to be considered a place the world enters at its own risk. After all, we follow a Savior perceived to be such a serious threat that he was crucified.”

“But the Church is not only what happens inside these walls for a few hours each week. . . . Church mostly happens the rest of the week, out there. We – you and I – are the Church when we leave here and go out into the world. . . . “

“The faith we practice has always felt compelled to move out into the streets and ask, ‘What is God up to in this place and in this time?’ because we want to join that work. Call it public theology, or our witness in the world, or the pursuit of biblical justice – our faith has never wanted to sequester Jesus in the sanctuary, as if he might – we might – be sullied by the messy reality of what’s going on in the world around us.”

“We Come Together not to be sheltered in this sacred space, but, rather, to hear the call of God to go forth and be the Church. To do that, however, means we need to understand whom we follow out into those streets. . . .”

“The decision to follow Jesus, Professor Gail O’Day says, ‘Is inseparable from the decision one makes about Jesus’ identity.’ [New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995) p. 534] . . . .”

“Who we think he is will determine the kind of Christians we become.”

“In the 1930s in Germany, the young pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer found himself growing skeptical about the Jesus being preached in the churches of that land. As political rhetoric became more overtly racist and the culture increasingly supportive of extreme Aryan nationalism, most German Christian churches rolled over and acquiesced to all of that. They gave their Jesus over to the rising ideology of the times. It was expedient for them, convenient for them, to go along with the predominant and popular spirit of the land.”

“Bonhoeffer and his colleagues – Karl Barth, Martin Niemoller, and others – resisted, and some of them eventually paid for it with their lives. They wrote an affirmation of faith rejecting the distorted theology used to underpin racism and nationalism. They started an alternative church, called the Confessing Church, as opposed to the German Christian Church, which supported the ideology of the times.. They founded an underground seminary, as over against the schools of the German Christian Church, which taught theology that supported the direction the nation was moving. They preached and worked against the tide.”

“And behind all that work, according to Bonhoeffer, was a single, driving question: Who is Jesus Christ for us today? . . . .”

“Who is Jesus Christ for us today? That question will inform our worship at Westminster this fall, even as it informs our life as we move from this place out into the world . . . “

 “Eighty years ago in Germany was not the only time when Christians have resisted the prevailing winds. Forty years ago in South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church wrote and adopted what became known as the Confession of Belhar. The Dutch Reformed Mission Church was the segregated denomination created for “mixed race” persons in the 19th century by the white Dutch Reformed Church, the denomination that eventually – by the mid-20th century – would develop a theological justification for apartheid, a theological basis for apartheid.”

 “The Confession of Belhar is a theological denunciation of the racist political system of South Africa of that time. It rejects the notion that God would accept the dividing of the human family on the basis of race or color. The Confession answers Bonhoeffer’s question, ‘Who is Jesus Christ for us today,’ by portraying Jesus as the one standing with those on the receiving end of the cruelties of history, those excluded from places of privilege and power by virtue of who they are or where they live or what language they speak or whom they love or the circumstances of their lives.” (Emphasis added.)

“Who Jesus is for us determines what it means for us to pursue his way – to be Christian in our time.”

.“Like the Germans of the Confessing Church, and like many in our land today, the ‘mixed race’ South Africans stood their ground . . .against those who would corrupt Christianity to make it supportive of the politics of exclusion and racial superiority. They declared that one could not be a follower of Jesus and, at the same time, a supporter of apartheid. Think of that in our time: it is not possible to a follower of Jesus and supporter of racism at the same time.” (Emphasis added.)

“Our denomination adopted the Confession of Belhar two years ago. . . .  We chose to adopt it to speak to our own historic and current racism in America, a system that has been in place for so many centuries.”

“Westminster has embarked on a pilgrimage to join the great effort in our nation finally, finally now wanting to come to terms with the original sin of this land, the enslavement – the buying and selling of human beings, the thinking of people as less than human – the enslavement of Africans to build up our nation. The legacy of that terrible time yet endures today. That journey for us, as followers of Jesus, starts with the question: Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” (Emphasis added.)

“Following Jesus is costly. The South Africans found that out. The Confessing Church in Germany discovered that. We will learn that, as well. The challenge to love in the way of Jesus should not be undertaken lightly. It will change each one of us and, hopefully, the world in which we live.”

“That’s why it matters what we do here in worship week after week. That’s why it matters that our children and youth are engaged in nurturing their faith. That’s why it matters who we are as a congregation in this city.”

The Confession of Belhar[2]

After the  sermon, the congregation read in unison the following extracts from the Confession of Belhar:

  • “We believe: that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ; that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world; that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker; that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells;
  • That the credibility of this message is seriously affected and its beneficial work obstructed when it is proclaimed in a land which professes to be Christian, but in which the enforced separation of people on a racial basis promotes and perpetuates alienation hatred and enmity;
  • Therefore, we reject any doctrine which, in such a situation, sanctions in the name of the gospel or the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race and color and thereby in advance obstructs and weakens the ministry and experience of reconciliation in Christ.” (Emphasis added.)

Conclusion

This sermon provided at least a partial answer to the question, ‘Who is Jesus for us today?’ It d did so by referencing the creation of the Confessing Church in Germany and the Confession of Belhar in stating, “Jesus stood “with those on the receiving end of the cruelties of history, those excluded from places of privilege and power by virtue of who they are or where they live or what language they speak or whom they love or the circumstances of their lives.” [3](Emphasis added.) ==================================

[1] Sermon: Who Is Jesus for Us Today? (Sept. 9, 2018).

[2]  See The Confession of Belhar Is Adopted by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), dwkcommentaries.com (July 21, 2016).

[3] The sermon went on to say that further answers to this question will be provided in future sermons and other discussions at Westminster.

 

 

Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Challenge To Be Always Reforming

On October 8 Associate Pastor Sarah Brouwer preached a sermon entitled, “On the Road: Beginnings Are Good” at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. Here are the Holy Scriptures for the day and extracts of that sermon.[1] Below is an aerial photograph of the new addition to the church and of Rev. Brouwer.

 

 

 

 

Listening for the Word

Readings of the Holy Scripture:

 Genesis 1:1-5, 26, 28, 31 (NRSV):

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light;’  and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’”

“God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’”

“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.”

Luke 24:13-16 (NRSV):

“Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”

Sermon:

“You may have heard this phrase among proud Presbyterians before: ‘Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda,’ the church reformed and always reforming. Even now, this latin phrase is a rallying cry for reformed people–a motto to remind us of who we are and who we intend to be.”

“Although we aren’t quite sure where it came from, it was written about quite frequently in the mid-20th century by theologian Karl Barth. Barth preached and taught during both world wars. He witnessed how the church, instead of being reformed, was conforming to anti-Semitism. Barth was considered theologically conservative, because he blamed more liberal theology for morphing God conveniently into the supporter of institutional agendas, like the Nazis. Barth fought for the oppressed through theology that was not popular during his time.”

“Barth was not a reformer for the sake of reforming; he didn’t insist on change for the sake of change. There was a global crisis happening, which the church became apologetic for, and Barth was called to respond. Throughout history, this church reformed and always reforming has sometimes been misused by people trying to obtain power, or exclude others. But, when reform  is legitimate and successful, it always seems to happen beyond the control or desire of the church as it is, and it usually has in mind those who have been left behind.”

“Now, here we find ourselves in 2017, at Westminster, a congregation right in the middle of yet another monumental shift. We believe that God is calling us to become more intentionally open and diverse, and responsive to the city around us. And because of an extraordinary gift, the project next door and the incredible mission opportunities with it are taking shape. Through the work of Open Doors Open Futures, and given our unique downtown context, and the juncture within the larger church and in our current culture, I am confident that none of this is coincidental. We stand on the precipice of large-scale change. It is upon us for a reason, and we have been called to the exciting task of deciphering what God is doing among us.”

“The disciples in Luke’s Gospel were at a critical turning point in their life, as well. It was Sunday, and they had spent the weekend grieving Jesus’ death. They heard the tomb was empty, but that was about it- they didn’t yet understand what had happened. Cleopas and another disciple were presumably making their way home to Emmaus, a walk that would have taken a couple of hours, leaving them plenty of time to recount the traumatic events of the last few days.’

‘The text says that as they were walking Jesus came near to them, but they were kept from recognizing him. It’s a strange turn of phrase. My educated guess says they weren’t the only ones on the road, walking home from Jerusalem that day, and they were in deep conversation, unaware of who was around them. But, let’s be logical here, they also weren’t on the lookout for a resurrected body. Their expectations had been foiled, and they no longer had a messiah who would usher in a new reign for the people of Israel.”

“This change in plans was devastating, and, as far as they knew, it put an end to their ministry. I can imagine there was a great amount of resignation between them. They had seemingly given up everything to follow Jesus–family members who counted on them had been left behind in pursuit of this religious radical named Jesus, now dead. And they were facing the facts of the situation. As Sarah Henrich writes, they had to ‘get real, grow up, and get back to work.’”

“As I read and reread these verses, where the disciples seem to have yielded to what they thought happened, I began to think about how hard it is for our own minds and hearts to be changed. We too can be in the dark about what God is doing. We miss resurrection, we move on with individual priorities, become resigned to the way things are, and we continue to hold on to biases that close our hearts. These disciples challenged me to consider: when was the last time I was truly changed?”

[I concluded that it was] “an intense seminary class in dismantling racism and bias. We met with some of the most diverse populations I’ve ever encountered, had some of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever experienced, and, it made me realize how much I didn’t know, how many biases I did and continue to have, and that it would be a lifelong pursuit not only to work on those biases, but to be honest and vulnerable about them and bring others along in doing it with me. I also learned an important lesson about ministry, which is that there is a difference between making change happen, and making space for God’s people to be changed.”

There “are, daily, new opportunities to choose how we will have our being in this world, and how we will posture ourselves–as individuals, and at this juncture in our history, as a community of faith. Will we continue on just as we are, using our new space to discuss our own opinions in the dark while the world clamors for good news and resurrection? Our reformation heritage, misinterpreted, can tell us that we alone are the change agents–that we are the ones with the lens that brings God into clearest focus. But Barth and Luther and Calvin would be the first to say that isn’t true; they weren’t the owners of change. They were reformers as a response to what God was doing in them, and what was happening in the world around them.”

As one of our elders recently observed, “as we open our doors to the future, is the expectation that Westminster will be a telling presence in the city, or is it, that God’s city will also become a telling presence to us?”

“The story of creation in Genesis always brings words of blessing, but it feels especially appropriate as change is upon us, and we find ourselves in the midst of a new creation. You see, our creation story begins in the dark, in what seems like the unknown. But even in these first verses we understand that God is intentional, there was never nothing with God, but always something, waiting until just the right time to be changed into what is good. God calling creation good is more than that. It is akin to outstanding. This is our beginning. And thus our beginning always has been and always will be beautiful.

“You and I, we come from a beautiful beginning. And we shouldn’t forget that. As the world continues to present itself as anything but good, we trust in a God who takes what is—death– and starts fresh, makes something new out of it, changes it, and changes even us. ‘The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.’ These things are not erased, but transformed. Creation reveals not just God’s capacity for change, but God’s desire for change that is good”

“In the last couple of weeks, in the wake of natural disasters, and another mass shooting in Las Vegas, I have sensed a collective numbing of our nation. What is happening around us often does not reflect the goodness of God’s creation. Staying in the darkness of our privilege, heads down facing the road like the disciples, feels much safer. But we believe in a creative God–one who speaks words and does not stay silent, who creates not because of ability but because of a desire to change, who does not allow the chaos of the formless void to pull us under, but transforms it and calls it good. This same God sent Jesus to walk alongside his disciples until they recognized him, and showed them the change they were capable of if they trusted in the power of resurrection.”

“We are capable of that kind of change, too. Change that starts within, that is deeply influenced by God’s world around us. In January, when we step foot into the space next door, my greatest hope and prayer is that we will not be the same people we were before. Who we were does not get left behind, but it does get transformed. That is our call. As reformed people. As God’s people.”

“What we are building next door is a sanctuary–a sanctuary for the city that is physically accessible, and spiritually open. And our worship discernment team has been working hard to imagine what kind of  worship will happen there. What they are creating will be good, in the best sense of the word. What has been most surprising and good about working with this group is how much we have all been changed by the process, and how our posture toward the world has changed, too. We are creating space for lives to be transformed by God. This worship is not for us, only, it is for the unchurched, the de-churched, the nones, the poor, the wealthy, the old and the young, black and white, LGBTQ, and whoever else is seeking the good news of the Gospel, and we don’t know yet who else.”

“I would like to think that if Barth had been asked what the next 100 or 500 years of the church were going to look like, his answer would not have been concrete. I’m sure he had his hopes for it–more justice oriented, more gracious and welcoming. But, as a true reformer he would have also known that even he could not predict what God would do, and how God’s people would be changed. He knew the future of the church depended upon a people who could look up from the road they were on. And as reformers of the 21st century, this is where we must begin, too. From creation to resurrection, from reformation and into the future, God’s people have made the most faithful changes when they have been open to God first changing them.”

“Beginnings can be mysterious and always start in the dark. But we also trust that beginnings are good, if we are open to what God is creating, changing, transforming and resurrecting within us.”

Conclusion

“The church reformed and always reforming” is a significant reminder for why I am a member of a Presbyterian church. It is a human creation, is not perfect and always subject to changes to meet new circumstances and to correct outmoded or erroneous ways.

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[1] The bulletin for the service and the text of the sermon are on the church’s website.