From the Bishop’s desk: Joy to the world
Jesus says, “Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.” ~ Luke 21:8
All over the world this morning* in many different kinds of Christian communities this gospel reading** comes before God’s people. Perhaps in the timing of this difficult lesson we see evidence of the working of the Holy Spirit. Or maybe it’s just the Angel of Irony. The spiritual significance, or the irony of it, is hard to miss.
I know I am not the only person who’s found this whole election business very disturbing. And I know I am not the only person who has especially regretted to the bottom of my heart the dread, apocalyptic tone this electoral cycle took from beginning to end.
Of course, the gospel lesson this morning is really apocalyptic. Jesus is in Jerusalem; he will soon be hemmed in by his enemies and arrested and executed. In the courtyards of the Temple, where he has been teaching, people mention to Jesus that this holy place is both beautiful and expensive. He replies to them something like, “It’s all coming down.”
It’s going to be destroyed to its foundations because the common people are angry, and the rulers of the people are feckless, and the Roman authorities have all the power. There is going to be an explosion. That’s the earthly reality of it. And Jesus wasn’t the only one to see this coming.
But more than that, it’s all coming down – this beautiful Temple – because nobody needs it any more.
For centuries, the Temple was essential. It was where God promised to meet God’s people. But God was done with it, and Jesus said so plainly when people pointed out to him how cool the place was. “As for the things you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down,” he said.
In order that we could approach God the Father, God the Son became incarnate, and God the Holy Spirit unites us to this Trinity. This unity’s beyond any need for the kind of sacrifices which the Temple was designed to make possible.
RELATIONSHIP WITH INSTITUTIONS
People like us are sometimes inclined to miss, which is that Jesus came to stand over against every human institution. We are inclined to miss this because for people like us, the human institutions work pretty well. They keep us safe and allow us to prosper, enjoy ourselves and feel largely at home in the world. But they don’t work the same for everybody. And Jesus stands over against all of them.
In a society of strict institutionalized gender hierarchy, Jesus associates with women. In a society that privileges some people and marginalizes others, he sides with the outcasts. In a social order much more fragile and therefore much more tightly structured than our own, Jesus tells people to step outside of it all, to give away their possessions and to love their enemies.
And Jesus knows all along the powers that be will kill him. He lets that happen, because that’s just the kind of thing the powers that be will do if they find someone who absolutely does not conform to their expectations.
All human institutions, every human arrangement, social or economic or political, are judged in Jesus. Even, maybe especially, religious institutions are judged in Jesus. The Temple is coming down. It’s not necessary, and if it’s not necessary, it’s in the way. So by the way, it should be no surprise if Jesus stands over against this beloved, all-too-human church of ours, and presses against it and breaks it and remakes it in ways we appreciate and in ways we don’t.
And if in the end all this, too, passes away, the glory of God will prevail as it always has.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus stands over against every human institution, but Jesus stands lovingly at the side of every human being. That is also the message for us.
It is to be expected that things in this world are broken and remade. Nation rises against nation. There are natural disasters and human disasters. Jesus assumes that those who follow him will be persecuted. And doesn’t that give people like us some pause – people who mostly are not persecuted and never have been?
But Jesus says, “Do not be terrified.” Do not even be overly concerned to prepare for what might happen. If we are taken into custody, whenever we do have reason to testify, the necessary words and the necessary wisdom will be given to us.
No matter what happens – and this passage of Luke shows that Jesus expected some very bad things to happen in the lifetimes of the people standing in the Temple courtyards with him – no matter what happens, God has not somehow forgotten this world or forgotten to love it, says Jesus. In the end, the perfect sign of that love is Jesus himself, standing in the middle of everything and sharing it all with us.
JOY IN DAYS AHEAD
Anyway, the election is over. Who knows exactly what next year will be like, or what demands the next few years will make on us? To each of us Jesus is saying: “Do not be terrified.”
We are resurrected people walking. In our baptisms, we are joined to the death of Jesus. And we would be dead people walking if our baptisms had not also joined us to Jesus’s resurrection. So we are set free in this world to live with the courage and the hope that so many of the people around us are sadly lacking lately.
We are not better than other people – the Lord knows we are not – but we have been called into a kind of truth that is deeper and truer than anything else around us. And living in that truth, sharing the news that Jesus died and risen is with us now and always, this is where we have found the joy that is the best part of this life. It is a joy that will be even richer and deeper in the life of the world to come.
A GIFT TO GIVE
May this joy be our gift to the world in our words and our actions, no matter what happens with any of us in days ahead.
And dear friends, in the midst of this beautiful, dangerous, fallen and much loved world:
May the peace of God which passes all understanding
keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus,
now and forever and ever. Amen.
The Rev. Richard H. Graham
Metropolitan Washington, D.C. Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
* Bishop Graham attended the ELCA Church Council meeting in Chicago shortly after Election Day 2016. This “From the Bishop’s Desk” post is excerpted from the sermon he delivered during the ELCA churchwide office chapel service on Sunday, November 13, 2016. The original version of this message was distributed to rostered leaders of the synod on 11/16/16.
** The sermon is based on Luke 21:5-19.