7/17/16: I Believe in Jesus Christ, Luke 4:14-21
I Believe in Jesus Christ
First Lesson: 1 Corinthians 15:1-8
Second Lesson: Luke 4:14-21
Over these Sundays in July we’re taking a look at what we might call “the basics” of Christian faith and we’re using the Apostles’ Creed as our guide. And as we noted last week, while it has not played heavily into the Baptist tradition, the Apostles’ Creed is an ancient statement of faith that tells in very concise and precise language, the Christian story from beginning to end.
Last week we looked at the first line of the creed, I believe in God, and this week we turn and ask the same of the second statement of the creed: I believe in Jesus Christ.
What does it mean to say, “I believe in Jesus Christ?”
In a letter written from a Nazi prison camp to his good friend Eberhard Bethge, dated about a year before his death in April 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer—the great theologian, pastor, and many would say martyr, asked a similar question, one that had taken hold of him:
Who is Jesus Christ, for us, today? he asked.
It would be a powerful question for anyone to ask, but knowing the context in which Bonhoeffer asked it makes it all the more so: sitting in a Nazi prison cell, having resisted the regime and its control over the German church by forming an underground seminary, then having risked his life and the life of his family, and his future with its promise by participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler. After all that he had seen and lived through and all that he had done in the name of Jesus Christ, in reflecting on all of this, the question he kept returning to was, Who is Jesus Christ, for us, today?
In other words, What does this story really mean for us—Do we really believe it? I think is part of what he was asking. Does the Christian story have anything left to say to this world? It’s not hard to imagine Bonhoeffer wondering these things while sitting where he was, surrounded by the horror of war. But the truth is, each generation of the church, and really, each individual believer must ask this question at some point: What does the story of Jesus have to say for us, today? What does it say to me?
Bonhoeffer never gives a direct answer, but elsewhere in his this letter I think he gives us a hint. He tells his friend not to worry about him, that he is doing fine. That despite his circumstances he believes God will find a way through all of this. That the present chapter is not the final one, that truth and peace and love will prevail in the end—that God will accomplish something wonderful, and that we’re invited to participate in it. This was his great hope that he never wavered from, even until his death. For Bonhoeffer, this is what it meant to believe in Jesus Christ: to believe thatGod always has something more in store. And not just for Bonhoeffer, for this has been at the heart of the Christian message since Mary first left the tomb shouting, He isn’t here!
In the sermon by Dr. King we studied this morning in Sunday school, he writes that the greatest message the church may have for the world is that midnight only lasts for so long. That dawn is always on the horizon. Weeping may last for a moment, but joy comes in the morning, as it says in the psalms.
For Bonhoeffer and King and so many others, to believe in Jesus Christ is to believe in the good news that things as we see them now, no matter how dark or distressing and no matter how long we’ve seen them that way, don’t have to stay that way—that there’s another option, another vision that’s possible, in fact there’s another vision that God already has in mind. In short, to believe in Jesus Christ is to believe in the capacity for change.
I know this may not sound like enough, but my God, isn’t belief in change such essential? Isn’t it allthere is—isn’t it the gospel, the good news: that things don’t have to be as they are? If things must be how they are, then we’re stuck. Then there is no hope. Isn’t the good news a story of God seeing that things are not right and deciding to do something about it? Sending the Son into the world to show us what God’s love looks like in person, act out for us what God wants: do this, don’t do that, love these people. God showing us what God wants, but then showing us how the world, how we, respond to that kind of life, that kind of love, which is that we kill it, we end it, but then God, loving us still, raises it from the grave. And in doing so raises us up too—all so that we would change. That we would be “born again.” Changed.
To believe in Christ is to believe this is possible. And not just possible on “God’s celestial shore,” but in the here and now. That if we want them to be, things can be different today, or if not today than tomorrow—soon. If not this generation than the next, if not our children then our grandchildren, but that this Kingdom for which we wait is coming here and in some places and certain times is already here.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me—standing there in his home synagogue, right at the beginning of his ministry, reading from the book of Isaiah—The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Then lets these words hang in the air for a moment, and sits down—all eyes still fixed upon him—and says, Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
Today, he says! It’s happening today!
To believe in Jesus Christ is to believe all this is possible and not only that it’s possible, but that it’s already happening. This is the Christian story—did you know this when you signed on?
To believe in Jesus Christ is to believe in the power of God’s love to transform all things for good. To turn an enemy into a friend, a doubt into hunch, a fear into a confession. Maybe even to transform relationships and prejudices that have become so entrenched, so assumed that we scarcely are even aware how deep they run until they’re laid bare so painfully as they have been over the past few weeks.
Of course, I’m talking about racism.
We need not act as if it doesn’t exist. We know it does. We’ve seen it. We’ve heard it. We probably remember the first time we encountered it, too. The first time we heard a joke, a certain word. The first time we were told the difference between us and them. I remember. It was my extended family. My cousins. And it hit me like a punch in the gut. We’ve all been there. And we need not pretend that it doesn’t affect things, that it hasn’t affected things, sometimes in terrible ways. Often small ways, but small ways that when added up result it terrible ways.
We need not pretend that things are fine the way they are. We must admit that we can do better, as a people, as a country, even as the church. If we’re afraid to admit this, we need to ask ourselves if this is because things are working pretty well for us? And we need to ask what we would say to all our brothers and sisters who have a different story to tell.
If we don’t admit that things could be different, that they should be different, we’re closing the door to God making them so—we’re denying ourselves an opportunity for God to work in our life. I believe it’s never too late to be born again—and sometimes this happens long after your baptism. I even believe it can happen to a people, to a community.
And I believe it’s already happening.
It feels like to me that something has changed over these last few weeks in our country. It feels as if the conversation has shifted, and in a good way. There has been bloodshed and violence, but it feels like this latest round has left us different. It feels different because it finally feels like we’ve all reached the point where we know something must change—we can’t continue down this same path any longer. People from both sides of the political aisle are finally admitting this; finally noting that we have a problem with race in America—a problem that seems so obvious, it’s a scandal that to admit so should be such a turning point.
And this isn’t just a national conversation, it’s happening here in Macon.
It happened last Monday night at a prayer vigil organized from local pastors, Reginald Sharp from House of Hope in East Macon, and Paul Little, pastor at Bibb-Mount Zion Baptist in South Macon, among others. They wanted to bring the community together to lift up the victims from the shootings in Baton-Rouge, Minnesota and Dallas, but also to ask the question that Dr. King so painfully asked near the end of his life: Where do we go from here? it’s true that we’ve not had the kind of firestorm here in Macon that has happened elsewhere, but we would be lying to say there isn’t work to be done.
And they reached out to James Goolsby from First Baptist Church on New St. to host this prayer vigil, in part because their church is such a historical church, but also because they knew of the relationship between our two churches. They wanted that to be a symbol for greater work to be done in Macon.
So last Monday night a group of a few hundred gathered on short notice—so short that I apologize I wasn’t able to get the word out to all of you—but we gathered in First Baptist’s sanctuary for a time of prayer and hope for the future. James and I were asked to offer the opening prayer together. Among those who spoke were the mayor, who offered powerful words of hope, even reading the Gettysburg Address, which felt strangely current. Our own David Cooke, the Bibb County District Attorney spoke, and our own David Davis, our Bibb County Sheriff spoke, and I have to tell you, his words were especially powerful.
I can’t imagine a law enforcement leader speaking more openly, more truthfully and more pastorally about the challenges facing our country regarding the divide between law enforcement and the community, particularly the black community.
He said that we have a problem in our country. We are not where we need to be in offering equal justice for all. We have work to do. People don’t feel safe, and for good reason—there is discrimination. He took questions from those gathered—good, good questions. And he answered them with sincerity. But it was the last question of the evening that has stuck with me most. A young woman stepped to the microphone and said that she was the mother of girls, but that she had a younger brother, whom she has had to give “the talk.” She said that our coming together this evening is good, but that a fire is still burning outside. Her question was, Even after this gathering tonight, what should I go home and tell my younger brother? Has anything changed?
Sheriff Davis looked at the woman and said, and I paraphrase, In my 58 years, I’ve never had to have the talk. And it pains me to know that so many have. I can’t stand here and tell you that we are where we need to be. We do not have the complete justice that we need, so I cannot tell you not to have the talk. You still need to have the talk with your brother.
But he continued. He said,
As long as he has anything to do about it, he’s going to work to make it so that sometime down the road in our community, people will say to one another, You know what? Here in Macon, I don’t believe we need to have the talk.
Change. Transformation. And it starts with people listening to each other. Listening to their fears, their hopes.
I have to say, I was proud of our community that night. Proud of the organizers for making it possible. Proud of the prayers lifted, the melodies sung. Proud of the words offered by concerned citizens and by our community leaders.
Did it solve everything? Of course not. There is work to be done, we need not act like there isn’t. But it was a start.
More than anything, it showed me that God is already working.
God is already working among us and through us—God is already working to change things for the better, to change us for the better.
God has more in store for us—for you, for me, for our church, for our sister church around the corner. God has more in store for our community, for our nation, for our world. God has more in store. This is the story I believe because this is who Jesus Christ is for me, today.
Who is he for you?