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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

October 14, 2018

 Proclaiming Good News

2 Corinthians 5:14-21; John 13:31-35

            Most of you know I grew up as a little boy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Pittsburgh is formed by the confluence of two great rivers, the Monongahela and the Allegheny, that form the Ohio River.  On that point first was built a French fort called Fort Duquesne.  But with the French and Indian War it became an English fort, named for the Prime Minister of Great Britain, William Pitt, hence the city, Pittsburgh.  Growing up, the city was trying to transform itself from a heavy industrial city full of industrial soot and filth, in a project, city-wide, much like what is happening to Nashville now, called The Renaissance.  A huge part of it was spent on the Point, creating a state park there that is absolutely exquisite, where there used to be nothing but warehouses and abandoned factories.  They created two magnificent bridges that were twins across the river.  One came across the Allegheny, and the other went across the Monongahela.  The only problem was they built one of the bridges with nothing to connect that bridge to, and for the next twenty years, a bridge went two-thirds of the way across the Allegheny River, and simply stopped in midair.  Everybody called it the Bridge to Nowhere.  More than a few cars, probably having been just a little bit overserved with Pittsburgh’s favorite drink, Iron City Beer, drove right off that bridge, directly into the waters of the Monongahela River. 

            The notion of a bridge to nowhere is a depressing and sad metaphor for someone’s life.  If we do not have any sense of where we are headed, it is awfully hard to maintain vitality and energy, because direction and purpose are essential if we are to maintain hope.  This is true in every dimension of life.  It is why businesses spend so much time honing their mission statements as their reason for being.  It is why every organization asks themselves, “Why are we in business?  What is our purpose for being?”  And the same is true for families and individuals, and supremely, this is true for the Church.

            The Presbyterian Church in the late nineteenth century adopted a list of what it called “The Great Ends of the Church.”  These probably would not mean as much to me as they do, if I had not had to take five standardized ordination exams in my senior year of seminary.  In the exam on Presbyterian polity, the question that was the entire exam, talked about an issue in the life of a congregation where conflict had arisen, and it suggested employing the Six Great Ends of the Church, detailing how you would deal with the problem as the Pastor who moderated the Session.  I had vaguely in my mind thought I knew the Six Great Ends, but when I read the exam question, I utterly panicked.  I think I managed finally, to dredge them all up, though not necessarily in the right order, and passed the ordination exam.  I have never forgotten them since!

            The Six Great Ends of the Church: (1) The Proclamation of the Gospel for the Salvation of Humankind, (2) The Shelter, Nurture and Spiritual Fellowship of the Children of God, (3) The Maintenance of Divine Worship, (4) The Preservation of the Truth, (5) The Promotion of Social Righteousness, and (6) The Exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the World.  In those Six Great Ends, we find the reason for the Church’s existence, the purposes for which Christ Himself established the Church.  Today we turn to the first of those Six Great Ends, and I would say the most important, because without this, the rest of them would have no meaning, or no context.

            The first great reason the Church exists is for The Proclamation of the Gospel for the Salvation of Humankind.  The Gospel is proclaimed throughout the entire Bible.  The Gospel is a word that means “Good News.”  Creation itself is Gospel.  God created the world out of sheer love for us, and said that what He created was “good.”  God created us in the Divine Image, and God said that what He created, male and female, was “very good.”  Gospel, Good News, was proclaimed to Abraham.  Do you remember the call of Abraham?  God said to him, “Through your offspring, I will bless all the families of the earth.”  This is Good News, or Gospel, proclaimed by God in the Biblical witness long before the Gospel of Jesus Christ became a reality.  In a very real sense, the Church exists to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ is given in order to initiate the salvation of humankind, the entire human family.

            In all kinds of ways, the Church is engaged in proclaiming and seeking to live this message of Good News for the human family.  But in particular, the Church has really struggled to explain and to understand, how the death and the resurrection of Jesus form the very heart of the Gospel.  Remember how John put it in one of the best known passages in the Bible?  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but find life everlasting.  For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:16-17).  This is the heart and the soul of the Good News of the Gospel!  The Church has searched for various images and all kinds of thinking to express how the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ is, in the words of a very gifted novelist, Dorothy Sayers, “the most important thing that ever happened.”  It is why crosses adorn Christian places of worship.

            I love all kinds of crosses.  I love Roman Catholic churches where they are called crucifixes, because Jesus is on the cross.  When I am invited to a wedding, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation, I walk into that church, and fix my eyes upon the crucifix, upon Jesus hanging on the cross.  I focus on it because I see it as an act of God’s great love for the whole world.  I love all kinds of crosses, but I especially love Protestant crosses that are empty.  They are empty because we believe that the One who was crucified was raised by God on Easter, which is precisely what makes the death of Jesus saving, and a source of hope and life for the world.  The Church has struggled for language to describe the fullness of this event, and never in its history has the Church only had one way of understanding how the death of Jesus is saving, or Good News. 

            Saint Anselm articulated an argument for the death of Jesus that is captured in a phrase called “substitutionary atonement.”  The final verse in our 2 Corinthians 5 reading, says, “God made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God.”  The idea is we have no righteousness of our own to bring, but we have a gracious God, who though He was without sin, for our sake, took on our sins, in order that we might become righteous, those who find themselves in right relationship with God.  Anselm also used financial imagery to describe what happens on the cross.  You have heard about Jesus paying the price in full for our sin.  It is sometimes called the Ransom Theory, where Jesus ransoms us from sin and death by sacrificing, giving His life, for the life of the world.

            A whole other conversation around the death of Jesus was initiated by a French theologian named Peter Abelard, who talked about “the moral influence theory of atonement.”  I love that word “atonement,” because you can break it down into three words: “at one ment” – that is, how God makes us one with Him.  The notion that Abelard recognized was, in the words of John Calvin much later, “not just the death, but the whole life of Jesus is saving.”  If you get to know Jesus, if you come to know His teachings and read about His life and death and resurrection, it has a transforming influence upon you.  That is why it was called “the moral influence theory” of atonement.  That is to say, come to know Jesus, and that knowledge will be transforming for you, even saving.

            Best of all, there was a third theologian, whose name also began with “A” – Anselm, Abelard and Gustaf Aulén.   (The test, by the way, comes at the end of today’s sermon!)  Gustaf Aulén articulated a notion of the atonement he called “Christus Victor.”  That is to say, in the cross of Jesus Christ, God defeated, once and for all, sin and evil and death itself.  Remember what happens in the Gospels when Jesus dies?  There is, in Matthew’s Gospel, a great earthquake, and “the Temple curtain is torn in two, from top to bottom,” meaning it is something only God Himself could have done.  And suddenly the way is open between God and humankind.

            My favorite thinking about the cross of Jesus, in the end of the day, is not captured completely by Anselm or Abelard or Aulén.  All of them speak of this giant truth and mystery in ways that are meaningful and helpful; none of them exhaust the great mystery and majesty of God’s great love for us in Jesus Christ.  My favorite thinking about the cross is relational thinking, which is why I had Jackson Stone today read from 2 Corinthians 5.  Listen to it again: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, not counting our trespasses (our sins) against us and has given to us the ministry of reconciliation.”  I love this language! 

            To think of the cross of Christ as reconciling God and humankind, of reconciling the world to God, means to make right something that is profoundly wrong.  We all sense things are not what they should be in this world. 

            To reconcile also means to be reunited, to bring back together, some relationship, which has been broken.  All of us need to be reunited, one to another, and reunited to God.  And to reconcile also means to heal.  I love all three senses of this rich word; to make right what is wrong, to reunite what is far off, distant or alienated, and to heal what is hurt.  I think of how hopeful all of these images are, and as I have been thinking about it this week, I have been thinking about how desperately we need the reconciling ministry of Jesus Christ in our world today.  We have just been through an excruciating and agonizing public nightmare with the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, and the very moving testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, both of whom purport to tell the truth about some event that happened thirty-six years ago.  I say it was a national nightmare and an agony, because we have been speaking out in the open, in public, about things that probably should have been handled more privately, and with more respect for everyone’s dignity.  We engaged in a process where there was no possibility for anyone to discern the truth of what it was that did or did not happen thirty-six years ago.  There has been so much hurt and so much pain, and at the end of it all, no real reconciliation.  The real tragedy of it is that people are further apart from each other now, entrenched in their convictions, than they were before.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ does exactly the opposite!  It affirms that God, the Holy One of Israel, was in Christ, became human, was incarnate in our midst, and that God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself.

            This past Friday night, Josh Rodriguez went to TPAC to hear Rob Bell speak.  Rob Bell is one of the most articulate theologians in America today.  Rob Bell is both loved and hated for a book he wrote a number of years ago called, Love Wins.  (I might have written a different book, one that would not sell nearly as well if I had the chance!)  I love a question that Rob Bell asks in the book: “Does God get what God wants?”  That is, when we look at the world, and look at the sweep of human history, and especially as we look into the future, do you believe that in the end of the day, God will get what God wants?  Every fiber in my being wants to say, “Yes!  God is sovereign, and in the end of the day, God will get what God wants.”  I am not sure exactly of everything that God wants, but I believe that the reconciliation of the world, in and through Jesus Christ, is at the very heart of what God wants for this world.  God loves the world so much, that He gave His only begotten Son in order to redeem it.

            At the end of another book Rob Bell wrote, called, What We Talk About When We Talk About God (A much better book than Love Wins!), Bell ends with three Gospel affirmations: First, in Jesus Christ “God is for us,” ever and always, God is for us.  In Romans, Paul asks, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  God is for you.  Secondly, in Jesus Christ “God is with us.”  Remember the second name that the angel gave to Joseph in that dream in Matthew 1?  “You shall call His name Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.”  Karl Barth said, “God is God with us, and promises never, ever to be God apart from us.”  Third, in Jesus Christ, “God goes ahead of us” into every tomorrow that we will ever face.  The future is not up for grabs, and we are not left to create our own future.  No, the Risen Christ, the sovereign Lord, goes ahead of us into every tomorrow that we will ever face.  Jesus said, “A new commandment do I give unto you: Love one another, as I have loved you.  By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.”  I love the person who said, “Preach the Gospel, if necessary, use words.”

                                                                                    Amen.

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