Gospel lesson and Pastor Richard Pokora’s sermon from Sunday, February 6, 2022
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.
After almost fifty years in the ministry of the Lutheran church I wonder if I got the message all wrong. I wonder if I missed something important in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This self-doubt began to percolate after reading about the Reverend Creflo A. Dollar Jr. in an article in the New York Times. The Rev. Dollar serves as leader of the World Changers Church of Atlanta, Georgia and recently set up a branch of the church at the theatre of Madison Square Garden in New York City.
I can tell you this about the Reverend Dollar. His Atlanta congregation supposedly has 25,000 members and an $80 million dollar a year budget. He has his own television program, titled “Changing Your World,” and book deals. He and his wife live in a million dollar mansion in Atlanta. He has two Rolls Royces that were gifts from his congregants. He and his wife recently purchased a $2.5 million apartments in New York City. Life has been good for the Rev. Dollar, though he would tell us God has been good to him.
The Rev. Dollar is a prosperity preacher. He teaches “total life prosperity” meaning prosperity not only in finances, but in everything from health to life. He argues “God wants you to prosper; he wants you to lead the good life,” which the Rev Dollar obviously does. “This theology taps into the country’s self-help culture. One of the goals of America is for you to become prosperous. For the church to put a blessing on that and say, ‘God wants you to be rich,’ is quite appealing.’” (NYT 1-15-06)
Without a doubt, a theology of prosperity appeals to many people. Connecting religious faith, especially giving, to material riches always catches the public’s attention. Anyone living in poverty wants a prosperous life. Someone possessing great wealth wants to believe God says it okay. The desire for great wealth feeds the growth of lotteries across our nation.
Questions, however, ought to be raised. Does a theology of prosperity reflect the teaching of Jesus in scripture? Or is the drive for wealth and prosperity a legitimate theme of Christian discipleship? John Davis, an ethics professor at Gordon-Conwell Seminary said about prosperity theology, “Part of the problem is things get out of focus here, and what Jesus makes very clear and central, self-denial and bearing your cross, is somehow left on the cutting-room floor.” Prosperity theology makes us ask ourselves what Christian discipleship should be about.
Our Gospel for this Sunday takes up the issue of discipleship. Our epistle for this day offers a critique of prosperity theology.
The Gospel of Mark describes the calling of four disciples by Jesus, immediately following the arrest of John the Baptist. The calling of these disciples should be understood in the broader context of the message Jesus delivered. Our Gospel reads, “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in God.” Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John to help get the good news out. He can’t do the work by himself. He can’t sustain the momentum all alone. He needs these four ordinary working stiffs, who happen to be fisherman, to get the job done.
Jesus proclaims God intends to do something new for creation and humanity. Things have gone from bad to worse for too long a time, gotten out of hand We need to be ready for what God will accomplish. We prepare ourselves for God’s new work through repentance and belief in his love and good intention for us.
The Apostle Paul takes this idea of preparation for God’s new creation a step further. Listen to his Epistle to the Corinthians: “Brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on let those who have wives be though they have none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealing with it. For the present form of the world is passing away.” Paul calls us to separate ourselves from a world driven by materialism. He wants us to understand what God intends to do through us and for us.
Paul’s letter contradicts modern prosperity theology. He says we should act, as if we have no possessions. Religious faith disconnects from material wealth. We live by faith in God. Our attention has to be focused on setting our spiritual house in order. Our call to discipleship is not dependent on what we get out of it, but what we put into it. The four disciples, you recall, leave their boats and fishing nets and prosperity behind. Christ and his ministry are more important.
Refuting prosperity theology doesn’t take much effort. If nothing else, we recall Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…” Jesus emphasizes developing our relationship with God and caring for our neighbor. That is, after all, what the command to love God and our neighbor as ourselves is all about.
When the four men called to be disciples in our Gospel for this Sunday leave their boats and fishnets and families behind to follow Jesus, they have no idea where they are going or what will happen to them. They are putting themselves and everything they have at risk for a reason. They believe Jesus, when he says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” The risk is great, but the gain is greater.
The story of the four fisherman reminds us that in every generation new disciples are called to labor beside Jesus proclaiming the Gospel. Jesus calls us to discipleship, despite our imperfections and self-doubts. God empowers and equips us for ministry. He grants us grace for strength and the Holy Spirit for guidance. One thing will be required from us. We must let go of self-concerns and allow God to act through us. Prosperity theology clings to material wealth. Discipleship becomes self-serving and not Christ centered. God breaks into this world to transform us and reorder creation, according to his purpose and design. The rewards of discipleship, therefore, are not material and temporary, but spiritual and enduring. Amen
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.