Texts: Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19
Jerusalem has been the holiest city in Judaism and the ancestral and spiritual homeland of the Jewist people since the 10th century B.C.E. But it has also been sacred ground for non-Jews, especially Christians. Believers, as well as non-believers, have traveled there to see where Jesus, the person, lived and walked and performed miraculous things—like changing water into wine. Without question, Jerusalem holds both historical and religious significance for many people of faith—Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Today, however, it has become a place of deep division and violence among the very people who hold it as holy ground. Daily, we are confronted with images and news reports of the intense conflict occurring in and throughout the regions surrounding Jerusalem. Indeed, modern Jerusalem presents us with a very different picture from the Holy City described in Isaiah 65. The prophet’s “glorious vision of Jerusalem as the new creation” has more accurately become a “gloomy vision of a very troubled creation.” To overlay Isaiah 65 with the images that we see today coming out of Jerusalem is nothing less than heartbreaking. The images we see hold very little joy and delight. Instead they hold weeping and cries of distress. In reality, the gospel reading from Luke more accurately depicts our current times—not just in Jerusalem, but throughout the world.
The biblical story often holds in contrast or tension the reality of what is, with the hope of what shall be. Knowing this truth about the biblical story, I don’t think I had ever experienced it as deeply or as real as I did when I read the Isaiah and Luke passages alongside one another. If there was ever a question about the relevance of the Bible for our times, these two passages should put to rest that question. Luke is the “what is” and Isaiah is the hope of “what shall be.” Yes, these two passages seemed all too relevant for our times.
As I thought about the relevance of these two texts for these times in which we are living, I wondered about what progressive Christianity has to offer the world—especially when it comes to representing the hope of what shall be. Living in a time when it seems that conservative and fundamentalist Christians are speaking boldly and clearly about their faith and how it shapes their understanding of the world, I wondered about what progressive Christians have to offer in terms of how we speak about our faith and culture and the values and principles embodied in our vision for a new creation.
In conversation, I will often hear progressive or liberal Christians lament that they don’t know how to respond to conservative or fundamentalist Christians. The frustration I hear most often goes something like this: “I just don’t know the Bible that well and when ‘they’ [the conservatives] start quoting scripture I just don’t know what to say. I don’t feel like I can defend my beliefs.” Well, my liberal friends, there is good news for you today for Luke has something to say to you. I will get to that in a moment, but first I want to assure you that you are not alone if you have ever found yourself struggling to quote chapter and verse of the Bible to support your convictions and beliefs and values.
In 1994 a man by the name of Jim Adams who was, at the time, rector of St. Mark’s Church on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., became concerned about the survival of progressive Christianity. Concerned that organized religion was becoming “ineffectual, irrelevant, or repressive” to many Christians he decided to convene a small group of peers to help provide a way for “open and progressive” churches to self identify as “progressive.” He was convinced that if churches would become bolder about professing their progressive tenets, they could thrive. By the late 90s, Adams and his colleagues realized that they had tapped into a larger hunger and need than anyone had imagined in the early years. The list of churches that wanted to associate with them grew, their mailing list increased exponentially, and the interest in a website they had created attracted people way beyond professional clergy and church leaders. By the year 2002, only eight years after the creation of The Center for Progressive Christianity (TCPC), the term “progressive Christianity” had become a common term used by scholars, the media, and other Christian organizations, not only in this country, but in the Western world as a whole. From its inception, the focus of TCPC has been primarily about rethinking and re-conceptualizing the theological and Christological foundations of the Christian faith. Eight points defined what they consider to be the heart of the message of progressive Christianity. Their mission states these eight points this way: By calling ourselves progressive, we mean we are Christians who…
- Have found an approach to God through the life and teachings of Jesus.
- Recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God’s realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us.
- Understand the sharing of bread and wine in Jesus’s name to be a representation of an ancient vision of God’s feast for all peoples.
- Invite all people to participate in our community and worship life without insisting that they become like us in order to be acceptable (including but not limited to):
believers and agnostics,
conventional Christians and questioning skeptics,
women and men,
those of all sexual orientations and gender identities,
those of all races and cultures,
those of all classes and abilities,
those who hope for a better world and those who have lost hope.
By calling ourselves progressive, we mean we are Christians who…
- Know that the way we behave toward one another and toward other people is the fullest expression of what we believe.
- Find more grace in the search for understanding than we do in dogmatic certainty – more value in questioning than in absolutes.
- We strive for peace and justice among all people, protecting and restoring the integrity of all God’s creation, and bringing hope to those Jesus called the least of his sisters and brothers. And last,
- Recognize that being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege.
I’m not sure selective scripture quoting could articulate God’s vision for the world or Jesus’ teachings any better.
Luke warns us, “…make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” The best response that you can offer to your faith is to tell your story—to say what you know to be true, what you believe, and then give witness to that by living out the values that you hold in your heart. Your life gives you the words and the wisdom to speak truth. That is what progressive Christianity has to offer our hurting world—faithful people living the questions of their faith with integrity, authenticity, grace, and love. Jesus came to transform people’s lives and in turn transform the world. When we live in this conflicted and hurting world with integrity and authenticity—living the questions of our faith with kindness, gentleness, and compassion—we participate in transforming our world into the new creation that the prophet Isaiah envisioned.
So, what does progressive Christianity have to offer the world? What progressive Christians have to offer the world is a humanity-wide perspective; a universal perspective. It is not a perspective found in a set of principles or ideologies known as the Bill of Rights or the Tea Party or even the Democratic Party. What progressive Christians have to offer the world must be found in a separate set of “other” first principles that are rooted and grounded in God’s justice. What are these first principles?
- Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and your neighbor as yourself.
- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
- And, do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
The kingdom, the realm of God, the New Jerusalem, the new society that God wants to create will be marked first and foremost by JUSTICE. And Isaiah 65 gives us the basis for God’s justice. Listen again to what it says:
- Everybody will have a decent house to live in;
- Everybody will have a good job and have a good opportunity to earn a decent living in the vineyards of this world;
- Children will not die in infancy;
- And old people will live out their lives in perfect health and not have to worry about who will take care of them.
Isaiah’s vision says that:
- When boys and girls are growing up, parents won’t have to worry that their daughters and sons lives will end “in calamity”—in a gang fight or from drugs.
- It even has an environmental note. It’s right there in Isaiah 65: “when God’s justice comes, people will not hurt the earth any more.”
In the end, what I think progressive Christians have to offer our world is our faithfulness in staying focused on one simple question: Is what we are doing serving God’s justice? Are we living by a set of “first principles” not found in any legal or societal document but instead that are rooted and grounded in the biblical understanding that everybody is in and nobody is outside of God’s love and grace and forgiveness?
Here at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church we are not known for our scripture-quoting, Bible thumping abilities. Maybe that’s okay because we are known for our justice-seeking, justice-acting witness in the world. More and more I am convinced that we do indeed have something to offer the world. Not as progressive or liberal Christians but as people who are living with integrity and authenticity—people who are living the questions of faith—and seeking God’s justice for all people. Until we cross over from Luke’s “what is” to Isaiah’s hope of “what shall be” may our commitment and witness to God’s justice remain strong. For we have much to offer the world!