Imagining a New Future 12/10/2017
Sojourn Sermon – December 10th – 2 Peter 3:8-15
Last week we began our journey through advent. And I have to say, we began this year’s advent season much different than we did last year. Last year we began with a service of lament. After a year of divisive politics and a contentious presidential campaign in which many of us felt that our deepest values had been called into question and perhaps defeated, we felt like we needed space to grieve with each other and to share our grievances with God. So that’s what we did. We lit candles as prayer for our country and our friends.
Last year the darkness of advent seemed to be the appropriate theme. We spoke about patience in the struggle for justice. We talked about how the church is like a ferment. It’s microscopic, seemingly insignificant, but utterly transformative.
This year, however, we began our advent journey with a dinner party. And while the primary reason for that was that I was out of the country, I think it represents an appropriate contrast to last year.
This year I want to talk about a different theme in advent: that because of the Christ event, a whole new future is possible. Part of the work of the church is to imagine that future, describe it, and live it out as if that future, which is promised in Christ, was already a reality. The church, in large part, at least in the US, has given up on this task of imagination and turned instead to a gospel of realpolitik, focusing on electing the right legislators, passing the right laws, and nominating the right judges at all costs. This is true on both sides of the isle.
Commenting on the lack of white/northern allies that joined him after the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, Dr. King warned in 1968 that the Beloved Community cannot be legislated. To say that the gospel is equivalent to a political agenda, is to preach a false gospel. Earlier in his letter, Peter says of such false gospels, “These are waterless springs, and mists driven by a storm.”
And don’t get me wrong. I am a very political person, and I believe the Gospel has political implications. I believe the Gospel requires that we advocate for immigration laws that privilege people and families above national identity. I believe the Gospel requires that we petition the government to care for the poor, the sick, the elderly, and all marginalized peoples. I believe that the Gospel calls us to illuminated the ways in which systems of power maintain and perpetuate themselves by oppressing some and privileging others. The Gospel requires us to speak out against police brutality, to welcome refugees, and to be allies of the LGBTQ community.
But these political causes, although very, very worthy, are not ends in and of themselves. The Gospel is about total transformation, both of ourselves and of the world. The Gospel is about a new way of being human.
After describing the ways Christians have failed to recognize our destructive tendencies toward the earth, Ellen Davis suggests that this failure to recognize represents a failure of the “religious imagination.” She says it’s “an in ability to imagine that this world could be significantly different, for better or for much worse, than we and every generation before us have experienced it.”
I would say that to put our hope in Gospel of realpolitik is a similar failure of the religious imagination. A religious imagination, uncorrupted by the nihilism of realpolitik, looks beyond what is achievable through the constitution, and looks to what is achievable in the hearts of people. This conviction was at the heart of Dr. King’s hope for the Beloved Community. In a 1966 article in Christian Century Magazine he wrote, “I do not think of political power as an end. Neither do I think of economic power as an end. They are ingredients to the objective we seek in life. And I think that end of that objective we seek is a truly brotherly society, the creation of the beloved community.”
Interestingly enough, Peter’s second letter, I think, presents some similar observations. Second Peter is an admittedly weird letter. Some have called it the ugly step child of the NT. To some, it reads like an unorganized rant. To others it appears to be a highly sophisticated philosophical argument developed in the Asiatic style. To nearly everyone, it seems unlikely that Peter the Apostle is the true author. As the cannon developed in the second and third centuries, there was a spirited debate about whether or not it belonged, and 2 Peter was not quoted by any of early church theologians until Clement of Alexandria quoted from it in 200 CE. That means that to such important theologians as Irenaeus, Polycarp, and Clement of Rome, the text was either not considered canonical, or it was not important enough to quote from.
Nevertheless, as I wrestled with this text this week, I actually found it to have some pretty powerful themes, despite the fact that we might be uncomfortable with those themes at the outset.
Donald Hagner suggests, “The heart of 2 Peter is its emphasis on the reality of eschatological judgement as the motivation for living righteously.” He phrase is akin to old adage, “Jesus is coming, look busy.” And while I’m no fan of judgement language, and I don’t really believe in divine wrath, I think we miss the author’s point when we get hung up on his or her of language.
In my view, the real point of Peter’s letter, which runs parallel to Hagner’s view, is Christ death and resurrection has initiated the transformation of the cosmos. That in Christ, the whole cosmos is being transformed into new heavens and a new earth. Our previous ways are being replaced by God’s ways.
In Peter’s view this transformation will so complete that it be like as is everything was dissolved in fire, as if the heavens were set ablaze and the elements were melted along with them. In the wake of the Gospel, everything is transformed and made new.
Again the language can be troubling, and the letter as whole might trouble you. Not only does describe this terribly destructive fire, but it points back to some of the OT least palatable stories as justification for such cataclysmic wrath. Peter’s argument appears to be something like this if God did not spare the world from the flood, will God spare the unrighteous on the day of judgement? Or if God did not spare Sodom and Gomorrah, will he spare the unrighteous when heaven and earth melt away? But if you are righteous, like Lot and Noah, you will be spared in the same way as we wait on these new heavens and new earths.
If I can quote Beth Pearson from my new favorite primetime drama, NBC’s This is Us, “That’s bleak as hell.”
On its face, it does seem that way. It does seem bleak. But when we dig into it, I’m actually not sure that it is. We need to do a series or something on divine wrath and divine agency, because I have a lot of thoughts there. But for now let me say this, that ungodliness is always associated with chaos and destruction. When nations and people turn to their own means to satisfy the desires for freedom and security, the result is always violence. And in many ways, I think the flood narrative and the narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah are literary depictions of that reality. Feel free to call me on this if you disagree, but I don’t believe God causes destruction to punish the world or to punish unrighteousness.
God is a God creativity. In fact the first narrative in scripture is that creates order out of chaos. God restores order. God doesn’t bring order.
Here is the lie, structures of power our built one the idea that they bring order to a chaotic world. In the ancient world, this was called the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. The idea was that when Rome conquered a territory, they brought with it the order and peace of the civilized world. Similar language was used to describe the colonial project. When white Europeans discovered “new lands” that hadn’t been tilled and turned into farming land, or that they hadn’t exploited the natural resources of their land, they believed that they were bring the order of the civilized world to these places of chaos. We see this even today, that if we can only spread American style democracy to the world we can achieve global peace.
But time and time again these projects are carried out through violence and destruction. These kinds of power structures sow chaos, not order because in truth, their no built on righteousness. These projects aren’t built on God abundant care for all creation or God’s steadfast love or God’s distributive justice. These projects are built on greed, on a lust for power, and a desire to control others.
This is what unrighteousness looks like, and 2 Peter wants to say: Look, that’s the way of destruction. That’s the way of chaos. When these are the kind of projects we are engaged in, we can expect earth melting fire and cataclysmic violence.
Peter, like Jesus, warns that there will be false teachers that lead us in these projects of violence and destruction. Listen to what he says about them. This at the end of Chapter 2, “They speak bombastic nonsense, and with licentious desires of the flesh they entice people who have just escaped those who live in error. The promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for people are slaves to whatever masters them.”
But Peter says, that on the other side of all this, on the other side of violence and destruction, there are new heavens and a new earth. Despites humanity’s best attempts to destroy itself, God still has the last word.
This is what became so meaningful to me about this letter: in the face of all the language about destruction and violence, and false teachers. In the face of all that. There is this message of hope. It is a message of total transformation that isn’t built on political ideology, but on trust in the promises of God. The thing is, we know that tendencies toward violence are not limited to one side of the political spectrum. This why it is so important to abandon the nihilism of realpolitik. This is why it is so important that we see our political causes as ingredients to the objective we seek, to borrow Dr. King’s words, not as ends in themselves.
Political ends can justify a lot of despicable means, but when the ends we seek are true justice, the only means we can justify are those that call us to love. Dr. Kings said, “I have fought too long hard against segregated public accommodations to end up segregating my morals. Justice is indivisible.” And Peter, knowing the temptation to seek the ways of destruction is ongoing wrote earlier in this letter, “I intend to keep on reminding you of these things, though you know them already and are established in the truth that has come to you. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.”
This, I think, it what it means to have a “religious imagination.” That we continue to remind ourselves, our community, and our world of these things. To continue to live in ways that suggest this total transformation of the world has already begun in our midst. And this is why I’m glad we began our advent season with a dinner party. While I think it is appropriate to speak to the darkness in our world and to name it, it is equally appropriate to celebrate the joy the comes from God’s transforming love. This celebrating, this imagining a future that is drastically different, drastically better that we and other generations have experienced it, is our theme for advent this year.