What if we won’t ever really understand Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection until we understand that God is dead? – a Reformation Sermon

Listen to the sermon here

All over the world, Lutheran churches celebrate the earth-shattering events that were set in motion on October 31st 1517, when a Roman Catholic priest named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Luther challenged the most powerful institution that his world had ever known. Luther shook the very foundations upon which the reality of his fellow humans was based. The power of the Holy Roman Catholic Church rested upon an interpretation of reality that envisioned a God who sits in judgement upon a throne in the heavens, a God who commanded a quid pro quo relationship with HIS subjects; a God whose determination to tip the scales of justice was so precise that he sent HIS only Son to die as a sacrifice for the sins of humanity, a God who used the sacrifice of that Son to somehow atone for the sins of every man, woman, and child who ever lived; saving them from the wrath of this God who had no other choice but to condemn sinners to eternal torment in the fires of hell, a God who established the church on earth to oversee the administration of the atoning power of Jesus death upon the cross, a church so powerful that they could sell you a piece of paper called an indulgence that would whisk you or your loved one out of the pits of Hell and up, up, up into the willowing, billowing, soft, gentle fluffy whiteness of Heaven, so that you could spend all of eternity basking in the Glory of your Father in heaven’s presence. These indulgences were more valuable than gold and it’s no wonder that the Church was able to sell them like hot-cakes, pardon the pun, and yes, I’m been sarcastic in my telling of this tale. Yes, history is more complicated than I’m telling it right here and right now, because I’m trying to make a point. The selling of indulgences was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the abuses the church on earth and in heaven.

The threat of hell empowered the Church to hold all of Europe in its firm grip. The economic system undergirded by the sale of indulgences was cruel, even barbaric, but it was also effective. As long as God was in “his” heaven, all was right with the world, because with such a fierce judge, mere mortals had no choice but to trust and obey. Martin Luther’s objections to the abuses of power that emanated from Rome, were the culmination of all sorts of attempts to shake people loose from the bondage created by images of God perpetuated by those who wielded the power to mold and shape God into images that served the needs of the institution that had claimed ownership of the story of Jesus of Nazareth’s life, death, and resurrection. Jesus of Nazareth who lived and died trying to shake people loose from images of God that were holding his own people hostage to the LAW that was handed down to them from their ancestors, a LAW based on images and ideas about the source of all that IS; images and ideas that were keeping Jesus’ contemporaries hostage to the endless cycle of violence that had become their reality.

Jesus’ of Nazareth lived and died in a time when life was an endless cycle of violence; violence that saw one tribe pit the power of their god against the power of the other tribe’s god, “My god is bigger than your god, my god can beat up your god,” an endless series of battles fought over centuries that saw tribes and nations, clash over customs and practices that grew out of their own speculations over the nature of reality. Endless battle after endless battle, where peace was achieved through victory. Might made right and only the strong could survive. Jesus was born and died under the repressive regimen of the Roman Empire, whose battle cry was “Veni, Vedi, Vici” We came, we saw, we conquered. The Pax Romana relied on the power, might and wealth of the Empire. The oppressed could either obey or they could rebel. Either choice was dismal as Rome extracted all that they could from the lands and peoples they possessed.

Jesus of Nazareth offered a third choice, non-violent resistance, peace through justice. Jesus steadfastly refused to tolerate oppression, while also refusing to take up arms against his oppressors. Instead, he proposed a radical now way of being in the world a way that insisted that the only way out of the endless cycle of violence was to love our enemies. Jesus insisted that at the very heart of reality lay a power so persuasive that no earthly force could resist it, Jesus pointed to an image of divinity that the world had never seen before, a God who is LOVE. Jesus lived and died convinced that the power that is the Source of our Reality is LOVE. While insisting that God is LOVE, Jesus proclaimed that that LOVE was available to us and that wielding the power of LOVE we could establish systems of justice that would ensure peace the kind of peace that surpasses all our understanding. This shalom, this peace that his people longed for, Jesus insisted, could only be achieved in relationship to the LOVE that is God. Jesus’ radically insane idea of responding to the LOVE that is God with LOVE for our enemies; his notions of radical resistance to oppression and violence, shocked his world in ways that ensured that long after the powers that be thought that they had killed this radical, Jesus’ ideas lived and breathed in the hearts and minds of his followers. The death of Jesus could not kill the LOVE that Jesus insisted was the only answer to the cruelty of injustice.

Jesus radical ideas changed images his followers had of the MYSTERY that we call God. By the time that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the doors of the institution that had tried to domesticate Jesus teachings, that institution had all but abandoned Jesus radical way of being in the world. Power had corrupted the church. Luther’s radical ideas challenged the power of the church to portray the Mystery that we call God in ways that personified the very abuses of power that Jesus life and death challenged. Luther’s objections to the images of God created by the Church, that claimed to speak in Jesus’ name, shook the very foundations of Europe and the cry, “semper reformanda,” rang out in towns and villages all over Christendom, as protestors insisted that the institution that claimed the power of Jesus, must always be reforming.

Semper Reformanda! Indeed. For here we stand, some five-hundred years after Luther shattered the images of the MYSTERY that we call God. Five-hundred years is a very long time in the life of the church and once again we find ourselves trapped in a world that is rife with injustice with nothing but an image of a God who seems incapable of leading us to victory and so there is no peace. Semper reformanda… But what needs reforming?

How dare we imagine the contours of the FORCE that lies at the heart of our reality? What might we learn from Jesus, or Luther, or indeed from Muhamad, or the Buddha, or Confucius, or from indigenous peoples’ wisdom, or from atheists, or agnostics, or from physics, or biology, or anthropology, or theology, or from music, or art, or from creation, or indeed from the vast cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, what can we learn about the nature of the FORCE that drives our reality? Always reforming, what images can we conjure up of this MYSTERY that we call God? 

In his book “Night” Elie Wiesel, recounts stories from his childhood years spent in a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War. The most horrendous story in the whole book, details the brutal execution of three prisoners.  One of the prisoners was a little boy who was dearly loved by many of the prisoners.  The three prisoners were led up to a gallows that has been constructed in the main square of the camp.  All of the other prisoners in the camp have been assembled and ordered to watch the execution.  Nooses are placed around the three necks and as they dangle there dying, a voice is heard to ask “Where is God? Where is He?” For more than half an hour the three prisoners dangled struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony in front of their fellow prisoners.  One by one each of the prisoners is ordered to walk past the dangling bodies.  As Elie Wiesel passes by the young boy is not yet dead and behind him Wiesel hears it again, “Where is God now?”  And Wiesel hears a voice inside of him say: “Where is He? Here He is–He is hanging here on this gallows…”

It’s a tragic story of the horrors of human history. Many Christian theologians and preachers have used this story to proclaim the “Good News” that in Jesus, God suffers with us.  You can find all sorts of sermons in which the preachers interpret Weisel’s haunting story in a way that insists that God was somehow up there on the gallows, suffering right along with those who were suffering.  These traditional interpretations let Christians off the hook, protecting us from actually grappling with the horror that was perpetrated in the death camps. When we insist that God was up there on the gallows, the listener and indeed God is let off the hook with the idea that yes this is horrible, but don’t worry because those prisoners weren’t alone up there on the gallows, God was with them in their suffering. As if that somehow God’s mere presence makes it all ok. As horrible as this story is, as horrible as the crucifixion of Jesus is, we can gaze upon the gallows or the cross confident that no matter how bad humans get, no matter how much we suffer, we can take comfort in the fact that God suffers right along with us. The only trouble is,  Weisel’s story doesn’t say that. In fact, if you read the book, Eli Wiesel actually says that God did die in the camps. 

What happens if Wiesel is right? What if God is actually dead? “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”  What if the whole point of Christianity is to say, “God is dead”?  What if we won’t ever really understand Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection until we understand that God is dead?

For centuries now Christians have been telling the story of Jesus life, death and resurrection as if the whole point was so that Jesus could act as some sort of cosmic fire insurance.  You know what I mean, Jesus died for your sins and you’d better believe it or you’re going to burn in hell for all eternity. Step right up folks get your insurance here come to church, pray every day, follow the rules and believe that Jesus died for you and presto, you’ll be saved from the fires of hell.

No, no you say…that’s what the silly fundamentalists believe. That’s not true of Christianity today. We believe in a loving, gracious God who sees our suffering, and who loves us so much that he’s prepared to actually become one of us and suffer right along with us.  Don’t worry about the fires of hell, because God’s grace is sufficient and we’re all going to heaven when we die. It will be marvelous, just you wait and see all you need is a little faith and all will be well. 

But what if the whole point of Jesus life, and death, are not about any of that? What if Jesus plaintiff cry from the cross is actually real?  “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”  What if Wiesel is right? What if God is dead? What if that is the whole point of everything that Jesus tried to teach us? God is dead. Life is short. We’re all going to die. And when all is said and done this is all there is! So, make the most of if folks. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die. What if the whole point of Christianity is to help us to experience the trauma of the death of God? What if the death of God is what it takes to set us free from all the idols we have come to worship?  What if that thing that lies at the very heart of reality, that MYSTERY that is at the core of our consciousness, what if that wondrous FORCE that runs through all of Creation, what if that Being that lies beyond our ability to imagine, that thing that we call the DIVINE, is so much more than we can even begin to contemplate until the god that we have created for ourselves is dead? For only when we begin to realize that the god we thought was God is dead can begin to discover the God who is so much more than we dared to speculate. 

I’m only beginning to understand the death of God. I’m only beginning to see the teachings of Jesus in light of this new evolving way of understanding reality. I must confess that I suspect that most of the things I thought I knew about God, simply pale in comparison to the Mystery that I now suspect Jesus is pointing to. I’m beginning get an inkling of just what resurrection might be. I suspect that resurrection can only happen if there is something or someone to resurrect. And if God did and does die over and over again, then surely resurrection happens over and over again.

If God is dead, then we will have to take full responsibility for our own existence. No pie in the sky escape routes. Maybe even nothing more beyond this life. And that’s ok. Because if this, all this, is all there is, then WOW. Isn’t it wonderful? And if it’s not wonderful why isn’t it wonderful and what can we do to make it wonderful? Surely this is more than enough? And if it is not enough, how do we make it enough? Life becomes so much more precious when you can no longer expect a reward in heaven. Our planet becomes so much more precious when there is no heavenly escape route. If this is all there is then let’s get at it. I, for one, want to live fully because it’s in the living that I can learn about that thing that lies at the very heart of reality, that MYSTERY that is at the core of our consciousness, that wondrous FORCE that runs through all of Creation, that BEING that lies beyond our ability to imagine, that thing that we call the DIVINE, that thing that is beyond the beyond and beyond that also, that thing that our ancestors experienced as so marvelous that they refused to even speak the name of God, this divinity that was spoken of under the name YAHWEH, I AM, WHO AM, I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE, YAHWEH the one we call GOD, who is so much more than the sum of all our descriptions; living in the here and now, in relationship with the REALITY that lies at the very heart of the Cosmos, this is what resurrection looks like to me. People loving God and loving one another, caring for this precious creation, passionately tending to the Earth and all its creatures, living fully, discovering, learning, experiencing it all and helping others to do the same. 

Semper reformanda, always reforming, this is resurrection. This is what happens when we can finally see that God is dead. This is what I am only beginning to see in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Resurrection is what Christianity is about! So, semper reformanda, always resurrection!!! Let us celebrate the source of our being,  GOD who IS LOVE beyond our ability to imagine, LOVE that lives and breathes, always changing, always reforming us in the image of the LOVE. Let it be so, dear friends, let it be so.

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