“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matthew 4:17). Repent: not so much regret as turn—turn around, turn toward the “kingdom of heaven” that comes near in Jesus, turn to Jesus, return to Jesus. My most recent turn to Jesus was Wednesday, January 25. Turning to Jesus was energizing, renewing, and uplifting. Days later those feelings have not waned.
“Follow me!” Jesus called to Simon and Andrew, James and John (Matthew 4:18–22). “Follow me!” Jesus calls to me and to us. Following Jesus is the key to moving forward as a church. Listening to Jesus is the second or third step in following, right after turning or returning to Jesus, and experiencing Jesus’s presence, love, and life. In my most recent turn, I experienced Jesus and his abundant life as my mind filled with things Jesus said that have for a long time been touchstones for me.
Jesus asked, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2). Jesus is talking about the Jerusalem temple. I am persuaded Jesus is also speaking of his church in our time. Coming out of COVID-19, the church will not return to what it was before the pandemic and will certainly not return to what it was in our favorite decade. Stones are falling. Some are large stones, including the governance structure of the ELCA in the hope that we as a church might better participate in Christ’s mission. Some stones are precious, including congregations and Synod ministries. Some are small stones that give us comfort because we can manage or control them, including the ways we’ve “always” done things. Concentrating on these little stones can divert our attention and shield us from the fear and pain of the larger stones falling all around us.
We get to choose whether we will approach the falling stones as “gloom and doom,” as Jesus bringing new life, or something to be denied, disregarded, and delayed. I recall sharing Jesus’s words about temple stones falling with you at the 2013 bishop election and commenting, “I do not want to spend my life propping up stones Jesus has destined to fall.” That is easier to say when stones are not falling; it is no less true when they are. Propping up stones, even stones we can argue Jesus has not destined to fall, depletes us. Protecting falling stones, regardless of how precious they are to us, prevents us from perceiving the new thing Jesus is raising up. Though we may delay them from toppling, the stones are still likely to crush us, or at least to crush our faith, when they fall. So I am asking myself how much energy I spend propping up stones that are destined to fall and how much time I want to spend feeling depleted, prevented, and crushed. The simple answer is “less.” “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Indeed, the thieves opposed to Jesus’s reign and even well-intentioned folk determined to protect precious stones will use those falling stones to steal our life, kill our hope, and destroy our faith. Jesus came—Jesus comes—that we may have abundant life. I am asking myself what Jesus’s abundant life means for me, my family, and our synod. I am also focusing more of my work as bishop on what gives us abundant life and not on what steals, kills, and destroys. Please remain attentive to synod publicity for announcements of the abundant life Jesus is bringing to our synod. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
“To another Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God’” (Luke 9:58-60). Some are not yet ready to turn to Jesus and abundant life; we still need to grieve all that we have lost. I once heard Jesus’s words as harsh; now I hear them as freeing and permission-giving. Rather than convincing people to get with the program, we can graciously “let the dead bury their own dead.”
The time comes when we can do nothing more for dying congregations, ministries, and beloved ways of being church. We cannot make people’s grief go away, except to be the object of their blame and anger. Regardless of how hard we try or how long we wait for the church to return to what it was, death comes. We can turn to Jesus for life. So I am asking myself where the line is between caring for people who deny death or whose grief prevents them from embracing abundant life and proclaiming the “kingdom of God.” Jesus calls us to proclaim the “kingdom of God,” which means we cannot wait until the dead are buried and everyone is over their grief. I am heeding Pastor Sprang’s advice to count the raised hands to see if we have enough to attempt something new and not count the naysayers. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people [some manuscripts say the cosmos] to myself” (John 12:32). Of course, Jesus is speaking of the cross. On the cross, Jesus brings abundant life out of death. Jesus does not deny, disregard, or delay death. I love Jesus’s words draw, all, and cosmos. Jesus draws like a magnet. Jesus pulls or drags to make us come to himself. We really do not do anything. Even our faith is the work or gift of the Holy Spirit that we can nourish and treasure. Jesus draws all people; I hear no qualifiers in the word all. The word cosmos in some manuscript suggests Jesus’s saving work extends beyond the human family to all creation, the entire universe, the cosmos. So I am asking myself how I as bishop and we as a synod lean into and not resist Jesus’s “magnetic draw.” Leaning in has to do with receiving, even turning to, Jesus as his gracious gift to us and resisting other forces attempting to draw us in other directions, particularly into the past. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
Jesus said, “You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48). Jesus, risen, did not give the first disciples a choice; he declared them his witnesses. In the waters of baptism, when we are joined to Christ’s resurrection, Jesus does not give us a choice either. Jesus declares us his witnesses. We witness to Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection and the new and abundant life Jesus brings. We witness to Jesus more than we sell or save or grow the church. Sharing the story of Jesus comes first because it is such life-giving good news. Sharing the story of Jesus is also the only way to sell, save, or grow the church. I am asking myself how much time I spend at failed attempts to sell and save the church and how much time I spend bringing good news by witnessing to Jesus. Jesus declares us his witnesses. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
Moving forward, sharing the story of Jesus is our number one priority because this is the work Jesus gives us and sharing the story of Jesus is the church’s future. Pastor Clay Bates lovingly reminds us that God will not bless congregations and ministries who do not name sharing the story of Jesus as their top priority. So I ask myself how whatever we are doing, want to do, or used to do shares the story of Jesus. If we cannot answer that question, we probably should not do it or we should stop doing it. More important, I am releasing my grip on stones I know will topple, turning to Jesus, experiencing his abundant life, and listening for what Jesus is saying to me. It is energizing, renewing, and uplifting. I wish this for you as well. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
The Rev. Craig Alan Satterlee, Ph.D., Bishop