In elementary school, children are taught that America was a destination for Christians in search of religious freedom. But that’s not the truth. Not the whole truth anyway. The historic facts are a little less adventurous, a little less heroic. Many Christians came to the “New World” because they’d been declared heretics back home. As more and more people learned about what could be had on the other side of the sea, they decided it was better to sail for the colonies than be burned at the stake. It wasn’t long, then, before the colonies became a hothouse of heresy. American Christianity from the beginning has been left to soak in a marinade of false teachings about what the New Testament teaches regarding Christ, his Church, and the Good News. Those teachings are still being served up as golden, tender Gospel steak in American churches and in our culture today.
Ask a co-worker, neighbor, or friend what the church’s primary message is and they’re most likely to say, “to teach people about God and the difference between right and wrong.” But that’s not the Church’s primary message at all. It never has been.
The Church of Christ is sent out to deliver a message, THE message, that a battle was fought and won by Jesus. The Accuser was silenced. Sin and death were conquered. Whatever we may imagine about God’s judgment of us it permanently went down into the silence of Jesus’ grave. He died for the sins of the whole world one time for all time. The New Testament teaches that grace, forgiveness, and celebration are the watchwords of the Church. God has reconciled the whole world to Himself in Jesus’ bloody suffering, death, and resurrection. Everybody is invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb. Everyone has received a golden ticket. There’s no cover-fee at the door. The only requirement for entry is to believe it and celebrate it.
When we portray the Church as an institution set up for the rehabilitation of terrible sinners we advertise ourselves as being in the business of morality, laws, rules, and prescriptions. We portray the church as a reformatory for naughty little boys and girls. We become, in short, about the world’s business. We just slather a dollop of buttery sweet “God-talk” on it. “God wants you to do this so that…” “Jesus died and rose for your sins, so now prove yourself worthy because…” “Christians mustn’t do that, if they don’t want God to…” But that’s all a pious way of saying, “You’re here now. You’re excited, we know. But you won’t be excited, or here, for long. You’ll never be good enough for God. Sure, keep working at it. That’s what God wants to see from you. Keep putting your best foot forward and maybe at the Judgment Day, God will…” Churches that preach this message end up turning earth into a moral purgatory. Christians set loose to try to pass one test after another, and to recruit others to go and do likewise.
But the truth is, not one person has ever passed the test (not that there ever was a test, but the old Adam does like his rewards). God didn’t bother grading any of their papers. Not ours either. He just went ahead and gave everyone a mark of A+ on account of Jesus. One hundred percent. No more classes. No more term papers. He hung a sign on the front doors that announces: “School’s Out Forever.”
When God’s Word became flesh, suffered, died, and was buried all our failures, and bad grades, and tardiness, and rotten marks were buried with him, forgotten by God forever. And in Jesus’ resurrection all things were made new. A new creation was raised up out of the grave with him. In this New World we’re all home free.
This is the Church’s primary message to a world dumpster-diving for a scrap of bread. Gospel steak and wine is served at the wedding feast of the Lamb without end. Best of all, it’s free. Totally free, no strings attached. God has invited everybody to come, eat, and be filled. And don’t worry about anything running out. When Jesus is the host there’s always more and more grace and forgiveness without end. The best good news of all.
Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, Online Content Director for Higher Things, a contributing writer at 1517 Legacy Project, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. Pastor Riley co-hosts the podcast: 'The Higher Things Simul Cast'. He is pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Webster, MN. A graduate of Concordia Universities in St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon, Pastor Riley received his seminary and post-graduate education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He colloquized into the LC-MS from the ELCA in 2008. He is married to Annie, and is the father of four children: Owen, Alma, Hoshea, and Hallel.