(Matthew 16: 13-19)
God is Dead! Now that I’ve gotten your attention, God is not really dead. It’s just that people just seem to have a difficult time seeing God, feeling His presence, or believing in his relevance. I remember back when I was around 12 or 13 the God is Dead movement sprang up. That was in the early sixties and if you think back on it there was a lot going on in the country and around the world that prompted to people to question the existence of a loving God. The first generation of Baby Boomers were beginning to question authority, the Cold War was in full tilt, and the Russians put Sputnik up escalating the space race. The Civil Rights movement was picking up momentum and making demands for equal justice and voting rights for black Americans. The Vietnam War was escalating, and many college campuses were experiencing student unrest. Long-held conventions and convictions were being questioned. The generation that had saved the world from fascism couldn’t understand what was happening to their country. Sound familiar? Kind of like we’ve been there before, a déjà vu.
And then along came the God is Dead Movement that stated we must recognize that the death of God is a historical event, i.e., God has died in our time, in our history, in our existence. Pretty shocking thing to say and even more shocking when you learn that it was being made by theologians, and a Methodist one at that. They drew upon Friedrich Nietzsche’s 19th century rallying cry: “God is dead!” In 1882 Nietzsche said; “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?” He used the phrase to sum up the effect and consequence the Age of Enlightenment had on the centrality of the concept of God within Western European civilization. The Enlightenment had dispensed with the belief in or role of God in human affairs and the destiny of the world. It was the beginning of the belief that modern man is too smart to believe in something he can’t see, touch, taste, hear or smell.
So, 80 years later, along comes the God is Dead movement that says it is no longer possible to think about or believe in a transcendent God who acts in human history, and that Christianity will have to survive, if at all, without him. Well, you can just imagine the stir that must have caused, and I remember it as it got quite a bit of play on the evening news. I vividly remember pictures on the news of people holding up signs that said: God is Dead. For the grandson of a Methodist minister this was quite disturbing and I’m sure I went to Gramps for some answers and reassurance.
Fortunately, the movement was short-lived, but these theologians did make some interesting observations. The founder saw the collapse of Christendom and the onset of a secular world without God as necessary preludes to the rediscovery of the sacred, and that the death of God is essentially a redemptive act. Another of the theologians concluded that the awareness of God’s death summons man all the more to follow Jesus as the exemplar and paradigm of conduct which, for today (1960s) means total commitment to the love and service of his fellow man. He says that in the time of the death of God, we have a place to be and it’s not before an altar. It is in the world, in the city, with both the needy neighbor and the enemy. Another of the theologians declared that God will remain dead until the church becomes secular enough in structure and thought to proclaim him anew in ways that will fulfill the cultural needs of the times. A new birth so to speak.
So here we are 50 years later, and the question remains: Is God Dead? For me, the answer is no, but sometimes it appears as if Christ’s church is on life support. But see, that’s the church and not the living God. I think what the harbingers of God’s death were really saying back in the 60s and what Nietzsche was saying in the 1880s, was that we were getting complacent and our religion, Christianity, was losing its’ relevancy. Considering the decline in mainstream religion that began in the 1960s, there may be something to this relevancy problem.
And this is where we find ourselves in our scripture reading for this morning. Jesus is trying to get it cemented in the minds of his disciples that he is the Messiah, the one they’ve been waiting for, the Living God. We’re told that when they came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples, Who do people say the Son of Man is? Now, it’s important to know that Caesarea Philippi was located several miles north of the Sea of Galilee in the territory ruled by Philip who had the name of the city changed to honor both him and Caesar. The influence of Greek and Roman culture was everywhere, and pagan temples and idols abounded. One day the church would be established there but the establishment of Christ’s kingdom was just getting started. The disciples answered Jesus’ question with the common view, that the Son of Man was one of the great prophets come back to life. He then asked; But what about you? Who do you say I am? Peter, however, got it and answered; You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus replied; Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
And this, I think, is the underlying issue for Christ. He’s giving Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven and making him responsible for establishing the church with Christ as the cornerstone. Up until that time, the religious leaders thought they held the keys of the kingdom, and they tried to shut some people out. It’s kind of like the church got away from being the church of and for the people. They weren’t relevant. They weren’t doing God’s will and His work. Jesus was going to establish a church for all people regardless of social status and that he, the Son of the Living God, would be that cornerstone upon which the foundation was built, and would stand the test of time.
Somewhere along the line, we may have lost that fact, as our mainline Christian denominations got too comfortable and selective in their outreach. They were fine sending money and missionaries out of the country but turned a blind eye to the plight of the people right in their own neighborhood, which may have contributed to the God is Dead movement. So, how are we doing? Did we learn anything from this short-lived movement? Maybe not, as I read another book published in 2018, over fifty years later, entitled: A Methodist Requiem, Words of Hope and Resurrection for the Church, by William B. Lawrence. He makes a couple of interesting points and believes we will live because of the promise that the church will be preserved until the end of time. “Yet, he says, we cannot be certain how long the current forms of church life will live before they die, nor can we be sure what forms of life the church will take after the present one dies.” And that was before the Covid-19 pandemic! He’s certain there will be a church, he just can’t say in what form. For the last four or five decades mainstream denominations have experienced a decline in attendance with countless churches closing every year. Many are hanging on by a thread praying for a miracle. When the United Methodist Church was formed in 1968 the denomination claimed twelve million members who belonged to forty-two thousand local churches. Nearly fifty years later the denomination has roughly seven million members in thirty-two thousand local churches. Lawrence makes the argument that part of our problem is relevancy in that we have a “diminished footprint” in major public issues affecting society. He says there are virtually no big questions for which the denomination speaks with a unified voice offering vital answers. There are nearly no topics on which the denomination has a recognizable, unequivocal position. There is no sign that society looks to the United Methodist Church for solutions to problems. It’s as if we’ve circled our wagons and are waiting for the Messiah to ride in to the rescue.
If it seems as if Christianity is lifeless it’s because our churches are not exhibiting any signs of life. People don’t know where we are or what we do. It reminds me of a comment a young woman made to me who had been referred to us for assistance by one of our members. After giving her a grocery store gift card so she could buy baby formula she remarked: “I would never have thought about asking a church for help.” How do you respond to that? Even before the Covid-19 pandemic it was a challenge getting people to come to church. Now, with our doors being closed and not knowing when we will reopen it is even more challenging. You have to wonder how many churches will reopen. That’s why, even before the pandemic, we started working on being relevant, re-establishing our footprint in the community which I think partly explains why we are still here and doing fine. We’ve had to rethink how we do church and are reaching more people than before the pandemic. We’re online where people can watch our services on Facebook Live or watch the service later by going to our website. Many of those who get my sermon emailed to them are sharing them and passing them on to friends and family members. As one way of doing church may be dying, a new opportunity is presenting itself as more and more churches that are led by the living God discover new ways of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ.
So no, God is not dead and there are signs of life in his church, the churches that have Christ as a cornerstone and the churches that are led by the Holy Spirit. We have a place to be and it’s out in the community, in our neighborhoods doing what we’re supposed to do, being the living and breathing embodiment of Jesus Christ. And because He lives, we can face tomorrow.
Please pray with me.
God sent his Son, they called him Jesus. He came to love, heal, and forgive. He lived and died to buy my pardon and an empty grave is there to prove my Savior lives. And it’s because he lives that we can face tomorrow, that all fear is gone. And because he holds the future, our life is worth the living, just because he lives. Gracious God keep us mindful of your will and you ways that we sometimes do not understand. Move us through the Spirit to be loving servants of your people and to embody in our daily lives what it means to be children of the Living God. Show us the ways in which we can bring new life out of death. Show us the places we ought to be so that the least, the last and the lost can feel the presence of you, the Living God. In Jesus name, we pray, Amen.