Is 25 short or long ago?
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) came into official being on January 1, 1988, and if you think about the history of our country, that really was a long time ago. Especially for churches. Mainline Protestant churches were still the dominant religious institutions in most of their communities in 1988. Most people in the country believed that Christianity in some form or another should dominate our culture.
Inside congregations most of the leaders had experienced the Great Depression and World War II. They wanted to build churches that would withstand the troubles of time, which would comfort members and support their families.
We modeled our new church structure on the great American corporations, with an emphasis on making sure everybody had the same points of view and the same priorities. We thought our neighborhoods understood what Lutherans believed and what Lutherans stood for.
Things are different now. Most of our congregations are located in places where Christianity is not dominant any more. Most of the people in our churches live and work in places where basic information about our Lord Jesus is in short supply.
We have had to learn to leave some of the trappings of our institutions behind, to welcome different kinds of people, to make our structures more flexible. Honestly, people like us live in an area where some of our neighbors know so little about Lutherans that they think we might be some kind of a cult.
We have discovered the hard way that even in the same Lutheran church people have very different ideas about the Bible, about faith, about what the world requires of us.
A great life together
And yet through all this change – as the culture around us went from being on our side, to being neutral about everything, to being against us in some ways – through all this change, the ELCA has really had a great life.
We have put our resources together to support the largest network of social ministries**, outreach to the poor and the elderly and the hungry, in the whole country.
We have welcomed hundreds of new congregations, some of them in the kind of new suburbs and towns that didn’t exist 25 years ago. In urban areas we have rebuilt thriving congregations which would have closed 25 years ago except that the few people who belonged to them in those days were too stubborn to turn off the lights.
Most amazing, I think, is the fact that in lots of places we have welcomed young single people and young families into our congregations. Some young people whose parents never really took them to church but who came to faith anyway have found the love of Jesus raised up in the Lutheran tradition to be really exciting. And they bring that excitement back to older people who were in danger for a while of giving in to cynicism and fatigue.
Lutherans from Africa and Central America and other parts of the world are bringing new energy and hope to our church, which has been an immigrant church through all its history in this country.
Hope in a promise
We have every reason to hope for a great future for the ELCA. But this is not because we’ve had all this great experience, or because Lutherans are smarter than they used to be. We have every reason to hope for a great future because our Lord Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit to teach us and to plead for us and to be with us always.
The gospel lesson for today*** comes from the part of John’s Gospel in which Jesus is taking leave of his friends on the night before he is arrested and put to death. Jesus knows they are upset and anxious. He realizes that though they may not know exactly what’s going to happen, they have a sense of despair and foreboding which is weighing them down.
And Jesus says to them what they can barely understand. He says, “My death is going to leave you in a better situation.” He tells them that the Spirit will be the permanent reminder that the grace of God in Jesus is poured out again and again. He tells them that in all the turmoil and confusion of life, they will be blessed with the gift of peace, and that they should never be afraid.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says, “and do not let them be afraid.” This is the message for us, who find the world so exciting and so dangerous. For us, who wonder if we will have the strength and the courage to continue to live faithfully in a time when so much is changing so fast and when new demands are made on us almost every day.
Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. This is also the message that the Holy Spirit wants to pour into the world through us. Because all around us there are people who struggle, who wonder, who are waiting for some kindness and for some invitation to hope. Hope that they aren’t going to get except from us.
All around us are people who believe that the future is too grim to worry about, who are not going to be brave enough to try to change the world unless we show them what power faith in a loving God can give you.
Things are different now. We know better now than we used to that the gospel of Jesus has been given for us to share. We know now better than we used to that our congregations are blessed with life by the Holy Spirit for the sake of the people who don’t come here yet. We know better than we used to that we don’t exist as a religious movement because of our beautiful Lutheran heritage and our nice relations with each other and our brilliant theological preaching. We exist as a part of the body of Christ, called into being to praise God and to show what human life is really supposed to look like.
In this time and place, maybe now more than ever, calling the world to Jesus and to courage is the mission for every single one of us. And in that ministry we will find the joy in this world that is the truest foretaste of the joy that lasts forever in the world to come.