Where Did Jesus Stand at the ELCA Assembly?

By Nadia Bolz-Weber 8-28-2009

In John 6:56-69, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, and when he's done a bunch of his followers say, "This teaching is haaaard." And Jesus is like, "Oh, I'm sorry, does this offend you?" and several of them left right there on the spot. He then asks, "Do you also want to leave?" and Peter replies "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."

As many of you know, my denomination -- the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America -- met in church-wide assembly last week, the highest governing body of the church, with several historic decisions to be made around this church's stance on issues of human sexuality. In the end, we approved a social statement as well as policy changes that now allow congregations to bless and hold publicly accountable those in same-sex, lifelong, monogamous relationships, as well as to call GLBTQ pastors in such relationships to serve as their clergy.

The debate on the floor between those at the green microphones who support these steps and those at the red microphones who reject these steps was sometimes inspired and sometimes insipid. Those in support urged the church to be open and loving as Jesus had been. Those opposed urged the church to heed the Bible. Both sides were passionate and faithful, and I'm proud to say that throughout the debate the assembly paused every 20 minutes to pray together. I watched people say prayerful things, hurtful things, thoughtful things, and idiotic things on both sides of the aisle.

And then a young pastor got up to speak at the green microphone and the first thing he said, in a quivering voice, was "Anyone else frightened to speak? I'm shaking. Please pray for me." And the man standing right next to him at the red microphone reached over and laid his hand on him and prayed while his brother of the opposing viewpoint spoke.

Then I knew Jesus was really in between the red and green microphones. Not in some sort of neutral Jesus-as-Switzerland sort of way, but in the you-must-lose-your-life-to-gain-it sort of way. Jesus is between the red and the green microphones, between the red and the blue states offering us life and salvation in the words of eternal life and in the sacrament of his own body and blood. Jesus right there between the liberals and conservatives speaking the word that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Jesus standing there saying forgive as you have been forgiven.

Part of me is with the disciples who say, "These teaching are difficult, who can accept them?" So when Jesus says, "Do you too want to leave?" I think the only reasonable answer is, well, yeah. I do. 'Cause these teachings are haaaard and I'm very aware of how much these policy changes mean to this community I love, but I'm also aware of how painful these policy changes are to a minority in this denomination I love.

To be sure, there are places to go in the ELCA for triumphalism. But while celebrating a victory is understandable, these are not the words of eternal life.

To be sure, there are some places in the ELCA where you can hear the words of angry indignation and revolt. But while disappointment is understandable, these are not the words of eternal life.

There are words of eternal life, but they are not our words. So let us not go to ourselves because as deeply as we hold our beliefs about inclusion, or social justice, or as deeply as we hold our beliefs about social conservatism or personal morality, we do not have the words of eternal life. We have our beliefs, our convictions, our understandings of scripture, and, hear me clearly -- these are not to be taken lightly or walked away from. But they are not the words of eternal life.

Jesus, the true Word of God standing between red and green, points us to life and life abundant. Not the empty satisfaction of being right because we are the majority or because we are the righteous minority, but counter-intuitively the words of eternal life tell us that we must die. We must die to self and live to Christ.

At the beginning and the end of these debates, Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson reminded us that


So let's again look to Christ and not ourselves, because in the end there are no winners and losers, there is just what there has always been, the good news of Jesus Christ, The Holy One of God. To whom else shall we go? He has the words of eternal life and offers all the inexplicable gift if his own self, body, blood, and word. And bids all come and eat.

Nadia Bolz-WeberNadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor living in Denver, Colorado, where she serves the emerging church, House for all Sinners and Saints. She blogs at www.sarcasticlutheran.com and is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television. This article is an edited adaptation of a recent sermon.

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