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Really good news!

30 July 2023 Ninth Sunday in Pentecost (Proper 12A)

Dear Saints:

Recently, I watched a news story on television about a young man whose parents had both died, and who was raised by his older brother and sister. He excelled in sports, in chorus and debate, and was applying to Harvard for admission. It was his second time to apply—a serious illness had kept him from attending the year after he graduated from high school, so he had to start the application process again.

His siblings sat next to him on the sofa as he opened the email. All three of them leapt into the air when they read the opening sentence, “We are pleased to inform you….”

That is what it means to receive good news. Not just a letter of acceptance but a leap of joy that flings our souls and bodies into the air in jubilation!

As Christians, we are Good News people, Gospel people. Sometimes I think we’ve forgotten how our faith is supposed to be Good News, not just for us but for everyone. The news outlets these days feature a litany of people who are desperate for some good news. In a world ravaged by pandemics and climactic crisis, and disturbed by images of state sponsored violence and the struggles for people of color for dignity and equality, it makes me wonder, what distinctive good news can our faith possibly have to offer?

For me, the place to start is the Good News that Jesus himself preached to the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed (Luke 4.18-19). He said we can receive a new identity as citizens of the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom is the society where love is the only ruling authority, and where Our Lord walks among us, drying all tears, healing all wounds, reconciling all enemies, flattening all swords into ploughshares, rooted in his sacrificial servitude as the very incarnation of “God so loved the world…”

I can’t wait for that! So where do we buy tickets to this amazing Kingdom? Do we rush into the streets and take over the halls of power? Before we do, let’s look at our Gospel reading appointed for today, where Jesus seems to speak of a better way.

Employing a series of very concrete images drawn from everyday life, Jesus describes the Good News of the Kingdom as like a tiny seed planted in the field of the world, growing into a large bush that fills the land, like a flake of yeast that rises the whole loaf, like a treasure buried in the ground, like a pearl, like a net that gathers us all in.

Although it’s tempting to rest our hopes in organizing, in educating, in protesting, we know that we cannot transform the world into the Kingdom by our own efforts; as theologian Georgia Harkness admonishes in her book Understanding the Kingdom of God, “The Kingdom of God is God’s gift, not a human achievement.” That doesn’t mean there is no labor for us as Kingdom people. O no! We have work to do! God expects us to participate in his work even as we recognize it is God’s. As we labor, it is for the justice of the Kingdom, not some worldly ideology or political ambition.

When I was a young Christian, the “good news” I was taught was mostly negative: I wasn’t going to burn forever in a lake of fire. But that negative version of salvation can’t offer good news to the cries around the world of people who can’t breathe in hospitals with too few ventilators, who can’t breathe as the strong kneecap of the lawman crushes their windpipe, who can’t breathe the toxic air in the Border detention centers or in the fetid air of prisons.

Jesus’ preaching and embodiment of the Kingdom of Heaven is Good News because it means God has not abandoned this world to sin but is working now to redeem this world, this history, these suffering people. In a particularly poignant essay entitled “The Christian Hope,” Bishop John A. T. Robinson writes, “Christians are those whose hope is from heaven, not for heaven; or, rather, not for heaven as opposed to earth. Their promise is of a re-built universe, a new heaven and a new earth, a new order, in which all things, spiritual and material, shall be fully reconciled in Christ. It is a hope for history, not a release from history.” The Good News is that through God’s only Son, unified with him, all things corrupted by sin and death shall be resurrected into new life.

Such Good News is what drives Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. The first eleven chapters of Romans work out one of the central hallmarks of the Kingdom of Heaven, that in God’s family “there is no distinction” between people (Romans 3.22b). Class, race, sexual orientation, wealth, fame, gender, religion, marriage, political party — none of these categories we use to divide up humanity into various tribes counts for or against a person in the Kingdom. In this Sunday’s epistle, Paul is speaking to anyone who has been told their identity keeps them from receiving God’s promises.

Our baptism in Christ has given us a new identity, for we are a new creation. Central to this identity is that “God is for us.” Paul then asks, “If God is for us, who is against us?” God will not cease to fight for us when God did not withhold even the only begotten Son of the Most High, who was given up for us all. Who can condemn us or marginalize us for our skin color, for the design of our bodies, for our refugee status, for the blood that runs in our veins? “It is God who justifies; who then condemns?” If God, the righteous judge, has named me “free,” then who can re-enslave me? God himself has appointed Jesus, who died and was raised, to be our voice. And the Champion of Champions raises His voice for us! What persecution is left that can stand against God? What can separate us from the love of Christ?

Paul’s letter explodes like a shrapnel bomb, listing every kind of evil he can think of that consumes and destroys human life, asking whether any of it can have final victory over those whose citizenship is in heaven. Can hardship, or anxiety, or starvation, or homelessness, or risk of life, or the ravages of war, or pandemic, separate us from the love of Christ after what he did for us on the cross? NO!

For the Good News of God’s kingdom is that when we make Jesus Lord of our lives, neither death nor life, neither earthly powers nor the powers of the spirit, neither pandemics nor a future climate catastrophe, neither systemic racism nor genocide, neither wildfire nor cancer — nay, nothing in the highest heights or the lowest depths of this cosmos, or elsewhere in the whole of creation, has the power to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I encourage you then, to commit this day to be people who everywhere live and share the Good News of the love of God in Christ that can never, ever be taken away, and that will, in the end, redeem this fallen world into a Kingdom where the love of Christ is all, and in all, and all in all. Amen.

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