THE OLD, OLD STORY
A sermon given at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Loveland, Colorado on August 12, 2018 (Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost)
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty…
Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
- John 6:35, 41-51
You all had a chance to ask me questions during the month of July. Now it is my turn! What is the core message of the Bible? What is the good news of Jesus Christ? What have you been taught?
Brian McLaren is a progressive Christian thinker and writer who grew up in an Evangelical Christian background, but who came to question much of what he had been taught about Christian belief and practice. In his book, “A New Kind of Christianity,” (2010) McLaren asks “What is the overarching story line of the Bible?” He claims that the basic story we have been taught for centuries can be diagrammed with six lines:
The human story begins with a state of perfection in the Garden of Eden, and the first two humans: Adam and Eve. But then, because they disobeyed the strict rule of God not to eat the fruit of one of the trees in the garden – the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – they “fell” from that perfect life into a life of toil and hardship and enmity and violence and exile from the Garden and from God. They fell into sin. And not only they themselves, but every human descendant of theirs now lives in this fallen state of sin and condemnation (original sin) – a state from which we are powerless to free ourselves.
From this state of condemnation, we have two choices. If we die in this condition, we cannot get back to the state of perfection in heaven, because sinful humanity cannot be in God’s presence. Instead, we are banished to eternal suffering in Hell.
But, God has offered us a way out – salvation. When Jesus died on the cross, our sin was erased (if we are willing to believe in Jesus and be baptized and be a good church-going, Bible-believing person). We were eligible for admission to heaven after our death -- where those who qualify will live happily ever after.
That is the story, in six easy lines. Sound familiar?
And before I say this story has some serious issues, let me first acknowledge that this story has done some good. It was probably a ray of hope for many people in the ancient world and Middle ages, for whom life was pretty miserable with no hope of improvement. At least it offered the chance of a new life of blessing in the next life. And over the centuries many people of faith have faced their own death -- and their loved ones have grieved -- with hope. And you don’t have to be rich like royalty to buy that hope; it was offered freely to anyone. That is big. Trust me. I have done funeral services for families with no religious faith. They can be pretty grim affairs.
But, McLaren claims this wasn’t the original story line of the Bible. It wasn’t what Jesus taught. Rather, it came into being about 3 – 6 centuries after the time of Jesus, when the Christian community broke away from its Jewish roots, and its biblical stories and inherited Jewish theology encountered Greek philosophical thought that was popular in the Roman Empire of the time – the ideas of Plato and Aristotle and their followers. Some early Christian theologians tried to make the gospel message of Jesus intelligible in terms of philosophical ideas of the time, and this is what they came up with.
Parts of this story have been hard to swallow, especially in the light of what we have learned in the past 500 years. There probably never was an actual Garden of Eden with two original residents. Instead, we humans have likely evolved from other life forms. And whatever heaven is, it isn’t a place just above the sky of earth. Many people have wondered what happens to people who grow up in other religious traditions, and never hear the story of Jesus. Are they doomed?
This story doesn’t mesh with Jewish theology (Jesus and his earliest followers were Jewish). The idea that we have all fallen into a state of sin because of the foolishness of our prehistoric ancestors has never been a part of mainstream Jewish thought. Most ancient Jews did not believe either in resurrection to eternal life, or in a place of eternal punishment after death. There is no mention of Hell, or the Devil, in the Jewish Bible. Those ideas were probably inherited from other cultures and religions in between the time that the Old Testament was written and the time of Jesus.
Parts of this story have been tragically dangerous. The idea that people had to believe in Christ and turn away from sin in order to avoid eternal suffering gave rise to atrocities like the Inquisition (where people were tortured until they confessed faith in Christ), the destruction of indigenous cultures (like Native-American Indians), the Holocaust, and supposed “gay-conversion” therapies for people in same-sex relationships.
The idea that God sent his son Jesus to die on the cross in order to pay the price for our sins may have had some appeal ten centuries ago, but it makes God out to be some kind of cosmic child abuser.
The God of this six-line story is God made in the image of medieval feudal lords, or the Greek gods – not the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob… and Jesus.
Brian McLaren argues that it is time to stop telling this story. And I agree with him.
But if the whole point of Jesus isn’t to get us out of Hell and into Heaven, then what good is he? Why are we here as a church of Jesus Christ, and what good news to we have to offer people? You’ll have to come back the next few weeks to find out! But let me just say that what Brian McLaren suggests in his book, and some other ideas I will offer, are not radically new – they go back to the life and teachings of Jesus, and even before. And they are good news that our world still needs today.
For now, let me say that I do believe that Jesus offers us new life – a life in loving relationship with God rather than with anything else that has less to offer us – a life that can begin right now in this world, but continues beyond our death. That is what the author of gospel of John affirms in the passage we read this morning – if we “eat of the living bread from heaven” – take Christ into our lives – we will find eternal life. That opportunity isn’t ours because Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins, but because in his willing suffering and death we see the almost incomprehensible extent of his love for God and for us. Who else loves you that much? We have an opportunity to accept it, and respond with love in return.
Jesus lived among us for a time twenty centuries ago. He was a wise and gifted teacher. He was a healer. But more than that, he was crucified by the religious and political powers of his time. Because the sad truth about humanity is that when they actually see God at work in this world – offering love and truth and health and freedom from oppressive powers – they tend to kill it because it is too threatening to the powers of this world. And then Jesus was raised from death. That is something that no other religion or philosophy has to offer. That is the old, old story that is still good news today, with the power to offer us abundant life and transform our world.
Come back next week to learn how!
Robert J. von Trebra