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On Being Evangelical

Every year on the seventh Sunday of Easter we read the same gospel from the 17th chapter of John. The scene is the night before Jesus is to be crucified. Jesus is having a very deep and very intense intercessory prayer with his Father in which he pleads that all might be unified – made one – in the same unity Jesus has been given with his Father and by his Father. Each time I preach on it I mention the difficulty I have with it. The last time I told you that, when I was an intern, my supervising pastor thought it would be a good idea to use this passage as a sermon series for all seven Sundays in the season of Easter! Even though we tag-teamed the sermons, when we got to the end I never wanted to see the 17th chapter of John again. Well, 40 years in the ministry is long enough for that to wear off, but I still find myself struggling with it. So this year, I will confess two more difficulties I have with it.

First, it is such an intimately spiritual scene. I’m not an intimately spiritual person. That’s my flat side. So it rounds me off to try on this text and contemplate themes like unity with God, intercessory prayer, and death. I can do that. It’s good for me (and you). But one other struggle I have with the chapter is this nagging question: If Jesus prayed so hard to God that we all might be one, then why aren’t we all one? As a matter of fact, why do things even seem to be getting worse, not better? Why do people seem to be getting farther away from God, not closer?

Many of you who know me know that each July I go back to my beloved summer camp in Ohio to be family camp chaplain. Camp Mowana. It is a beautiful place with hills and streams, a pine forest, and a scenic waterfall. It has been a Lutheran camp for 75 years. I was a camper and a staff member there. So was my sister. I have volunteered each summer for most of my 40 years in the ministry. You can imagine how I felt two weeks ago, then, when I received a letter from Lutheran Outdoor Ministries in Ohio that the decision had been made to sell the camp to the Trust for Public Land who, it is hoped, will steward and preserve the land in good ways. I have two more seasons to go there.

Why is this 75-year-old Lutheran camp coming to an end? Allow me to quote from their letter: “We live in a culture where fewer and fewer people have any interest in participating in organized religion or church camps. Only 1 out of 5 millennials have any religious affiliation. Only 10% of the population in the U.S. attends worship services on a Sunday morning. Since the ELCA was formed in 1987, church membership in Ohio has declined by over 40%. Camp attendance has followed this trend.”

Of those millennials who aren’t going to church it isn’t as if they had a church to go to if they were going. Over 40% of those under 30 report that they have no church affiliation whatsoever – no congregation, no denomination, no religion at all. Some argue that it is only organized religion which turns them off and that they are “spiritual” by heart. But you know what? I’m not sure I buy that. I’m not sure I believe that our millennials are out there in the woods or in some yoga class experiencing an existential oneness with their Lord and savior reflective of the personal prayer Jesus had with his father which we heard about in today’s gospel. I fear it is not the messenger – the church – millennials they are avoiding. I fear it is the message itself. Our message was stated very clearly in today’s epistle from I John: I quote: “And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

So, what do we do with this deeply personal plea Jesus makes with his Father in heaven for unity in the spirit? Do we go to where the millennials are and invite them to “accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior” or “let God into their hearts.” If I were a millennial I’d turn, run the other way, and report the person for stalking. This is what they are running from – a Christianity they conflate with closed-mindedness, male-centricity, homophobia, and hypocrisy. The scholars Robert Putnam and David Campbell in their book, “American Grace” tell us that millennials with tolerant and open views on social issues were twice as likely not to affiliate any religion than their peers. They don’t see the church as open and tolerant.

A recent issue of our Lutheran magazine was very upfront about the discomfort many Lutherans have with that word “evangelical” which is part of our church’s name – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. They are worried it turns more people off than on. I’m inclined to agree. However, the church defends this on the grounds that we had the word first. Luther’s followers were called evangelicals. It means people who proclaim the Good News. Even in Germany, the church is the “Evangelische Kirche” – the Evangelical Church, not the Lutheran church.

As we said last week, “accepting Jesus” and “inviting God” is not part of our vocabulary because God has already accepted us, has already forgiven us, and has already made us one with him – the very thing Jesus prayed for. Jesus had to die for it to become true, but it became true. In this prayer, Jesus said, “Sanctify them in the truth: your word is truth.” Jesus is truth.

So, being part of an organized denominational religion with the word “Evangelical” in its name makes it twice as hard to bear witness. But bear the witness we must. And our testimony is this: You are one with the creator. Jesus Christ made this happen. Whether you have “accepted” him or not, he has accepted you!” Moreover, he has accepted all people of all races, nationalities, and sexual orientation. Moreover, he calls us all to acceptance of the other – especially the one we fear. Life in Christ means doing justice and working for peace in the world. I can’t speak for the others, but this congregation and this denomination do the very things which reflect the values millennials have. If they aren’t seeing it, maybe we need to be more transparent about it. Yes, it means giving “testimony.” But our testimony is truth, justice, and peace.

Well, next year on the seventh Sunday of Easter I will probably, once again, tell you about my discomfort with the 17th chapter of John. I suspect that a year from now the statistics about loss of membership in the church at large won’t have improved. I suspect that millennials will not have started to break down our door. But even though I suspect that will be the case, I hope that it will not. I will pray that it will not. I will pray, along side of Jesus, that “they may all be one.” I’d like for you to pray that way, too.

Text: John 17:6-19

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