I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself,
if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received
from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.
Finding The Gospel in The Parables
It will be my intention to bring your attention to Jesus’ parables this year. Not every Sunday, and not to the exclusion of all other themes, but on numerous Sunday gatherings I will be preaching on some aspect of the parables. So by way of introduction, and perhaps warning, what follows is a preamble to those sermons. Some people have long lists of Jesus’ parables. Perfectly legitimate; their lists include brief comments from Jesus, about things like childbirth or being salt, as parables. I arbitrarily lump such comments under “teachings” in my mind. So I only deal with forty-seven of Jesus’ most prominent parables. (We will not have time to touch on all of them, of course.)
We do know that we do not have an accurate record of what Jesus did and said, as we would think of such things today. That is, nobody was videotaping or recording His ministry. Jesus wrote nothing down Himself. (I think on purpose.) Nevertheless, I am persuaded that our records (the New Testament) are sufficiently tested, questioned, and challenged enough that we can count on them to give us enough information to piece together the essential story and message of Jesus’ life among us.
What these records make clear, though many current “followers” will not admit it, is that Jesus was so “new and different” that even those who were drawn to Him and wanted to be His followers had endless misconceptions and disagreements and could not shed all of their assumptions, former beliefs, and prejudices fast enough to track what Jesus was trying to teach them.
For example, the Second Coming, with all of its assumptions: the dead waiting in their graves; those who were not believing would be punished for eternity in the fires of Hell (which was most of the population of the world, at that time); a Messiah who would be victorious in battle and who would defeat all the enemies of Israel; a cosmos that was still a flat earth at the center of Creation; etc.
Perhaps most misleading was the notion that life on earth as we know it would end within the lifetime of the present disciples. The purpose of Jesus was understood as “the closing of the Age,” not “the formation of the Church.” The formation of the Church would require the coming of the Holy Spirit. So, many things got mixed together. Jesus is “sitting at the right hand of God” in Heaven, but He is also here among us as the Holy Spirit – and as such, He is leading and guiding each one of us – as the “Head of the Church.” It seems clear that the early followers mixed together Jesus’ comments about the coming destruction of Jerusalem (70 A.D.) with their own hopes and assumptions about the end of the AGE, when God would step in, right all the wrongs, punish all the “bad guys,” and establish the new Kingdom on a transformed earth.
So the Christian Path and Message are not as “simple” as most people still want to make them. We study the scriptures not just to swallow some canned and prepackaged truth, but to learn what we can about Jesus and His Message and His Invitation – which is partly mixed up with errors and assumptions brought in and added on to the story by His followers. This is real life in our broken world. It is the way things really are, everywhere we turn. My wife is wonderful, but she is not inerrant. (Of course, neither am I.) And the truth is, neither was Peter or Paul or Luke, etc. So those who want the simple fairy story do not want the real story. The real story (which we never know fully or completely) is better and more precious than that. And each generation has to dig for it with whatever honest tools and doubts they can bring to bear. Nothing on earth is more important. But nothing worthwhile is lightly won. An old adage that still remains true. Many people in our culture do not intend to give Jesus or His Message any truly serious thought or consideration. They are too busy with other things. The “way of the world” is ever thus.
By the way, those of us in this church have not invented, nor are we unique in, our approaches. Most of the respected seminaries and churches of the early twentieth century were in “the camp” that we come from. But most of this camp has become enamored of various efforts to “save the world” (social action, feed the hungry, help the poor) and no longer spend much time or effort in Bible study or theology. So for many people, The New Church seems to be a lone voice crying in the wilderness. But you can still read Harry Emerson Fosdick, Rufus Jones, Emil Brunner, Elton Trueblood, Paul Scherer, the Niebuhr brothers or dozens of others and discover that I have not come out of nowhere. Or you can go back to a Quaker teacher/preacher in England, Edward Grubb (1854-1939). You can still find some of the books he had published in the early 1900s. I never knew him, nor knew of him. But I stumbled onto him because of a hymn he wrote, “Our God to Whom We Turn.” Then I discovered that he was saying a hundred years ago many of the things I have been trying to tell you today.
I am simply acknowledging that finding the Christian Path and following Jesus are not the “slam dunk” that many churches and schools are claiming. If you did not already know this, you probably wouldn’t still have any interest in The New Church. Of course, there are other pockets of Christianity that seem more closely aligned with approaches similar to ours.
In any case, I am hoping to set before you the way the parables carry Jesus’ Gospel Message. Some scholars have argued that Paul brought us the Message of grace and forgiveness – what we think of as “the Gospel” – and that Jesus Himself was still mostly stuck in the laws and rules of the Jewish way of thinking, focused on the Torah. I have never understood this perspective – that Paul was the author of the Christian Message, not Jesus. Be that as it may, I find and see the Gospel in most everything Jesus said or did. I know that what Jesus said and did comes to us through the eyes and memories of His followers. Nevertheless, with numerous twists and turns, I am convinced that our records (the New Testament) are essentially reliable in their portrayal of what Jesus did and taught. Many do not agree, and that’s okay with me. They wander off into other areas of interest and pursue other avenues of purpose and truth. But as most of you know, I am sold on Jesus. And I think the records tell us fairly well what His Message and His WAY of Life was like. It still takes more serious study than most people give it. And it is indeed buried in many errors and blunders that people brought with them when they came to know Jesus, and that others brought into the picture when they tried to make Jesus and His story conform to opinions and prejudices that they thought were more realistic than what they were seeing or hearing from Jesus. Is it not that way still?
Most of you know most of the parables fairly well. But ordinarily we study the parables one at a time. They are wonderful. But it seems to me that it is difficult for us to realize the real artistry and the startling newness of Jesus’ way of thinking if we only consider the parables as independent stories and look at them one at a time. Besides, we know Jesus was camouflaging some things on purpose, we presume hoping we would think more deeply before trying to incorporate them into our lives.
The parables are particularly impressive for reasons we do not always notice at first. That is, our familiarity with them makes us sometimes overlook how essentially offensive they are. Nobody who thinks the way most of our world thinks – still to this day – would tell stories like these. Indirectly, the parables reassure us that the New Testament records about Jesus are fairly close to the reality. That’s because no normal person in their right mind would tell such stories, and no group of followers would tell these stories the way they stand. Any current church committee preparing to publish the parables would spend hours trying to clean them up so they would not turn potential church members away. It is therefore hard to imagine anyone but Jesus telling stories like these. As one of my seminary professors (Samuel H. Miller) commented, when we were considering some of Jesus’ parables: “It’s no wonder they crucified Him.”
Anyway, the parables make me feel terrible! They take away all pretense to pride, all confidence in my own “goodness.” They also make me feel wonderful! They keep proclaiming a very different view of Life and of God: one filled with grace and wonder and love. Hope you can fit our worship gatherings into your busy schedules this year. If not, well, the parables have a lot to say about such very real issues.
Peace & Love,