05/12/2019: Christianity’s Branding

CHRISTIANITY’S BRANDING

Revelation 22: 17-21
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
May 12, 2019

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has famously said, Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room.
We Christians clearly have a branding problem. Too many people are convinced that Christianity can best be described with five adjectives: Christians are “literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, and bigoted.”

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It doesn’t matter how warm and welcoming we might be, we all know what it is like to have to explain ourselves. “Yes, I am a Christian, but not THAT kind of Christian!” After a while, that gets old. Christianity is often branded as people who want to tell you how to live, keep you from having any fun, or tell you how to vote.

One of the great values of a good branding statement is that it is memorable. You hear it, and you know the product. Here’s a good branding statement: “You’re in good hands with ….” Yes, you all know the rest of the sentence because it is memorable. But that is not the only insurance company with a good tagline: “Like a good neighbor….” Here’s another good branding statement: “Melts in your mouth; not in your hand.” We all know that it is for M&M’s. Go just about anywhere in the world and ask someone, “What is finger-lickin’ good?” and they will say….

OK, what is a good, short, memorable branding statement for Christianity? I want to commend the last sentence in our Bible: The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Don’t you wish that is what people think of Christianity? Instead of judgmentalism; instead of harsh rhetoric; instead of intricate theological formulations; what we have in that sentence is very simple. It could all be boiled down to one word: grace.

That is what John Newton discovered when he was converted as the captain of a slave ship, and he wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace.” That’s all he could call it! What else? He really felt like amazing grace had “saved a wretch like me.” We may not feel like the wretch he felt like, but we know what forgiveness and restitution are like. Only grace can do that, not harsh judgment and condemnation. What if grace, the grace of Christ, was the first thing people thought of when they thought of Christianity?

The very history of this last sentence in the Bible is a testimony to how hard such grace is to accept. You know, of course, that we do not have a single original copy of any book of the Bible. The book of Revelation has come down to us with many variants in wording. The Greek of a verse may have a handful of variant readings, depending on the manuscript. There is no way of knowing for sure which one was the original. So those people who spend a lifetime studying the early manuscripts of the Bible and tediously translating them into English have to make a decision. And if you look at different translations of the Bible, you will see the differences in the last sentence of Revelation.

Here are some of the variations: The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. But some other manuscripts read: The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Some say, The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all God’s people. Others say, The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the brothers. OK—to whom is the grace of the Lord Jesus directed?

Here’s what I think: I think that the original was all-inclusive: that the grace of Christ was without limits, embracing not only all people but all of creation. I think the grace of Christ reaches the highest heaven and the lowest earth. I think that God’s unmerited favor, God’s will for all of creation, is for good. But people over the centuries looked at the grace of Christ, clearly for all, and decided to narrow it down to their little group. Somewhere down the line some ancient scribe came to the last sentence in the book of Revelation and decided that it couldn’t possibly mean that the grace of Christ was for all, so he changed it to say that the grace of Christ was just for the saints! Or just for the church!

We can see that down through the centuries. People are always trying to narrow the grace of Christ to their little subculture. All others, in their view, are outside the grace of Christ. That narrow, judgmental, exclusive view of the grace of Christ is too often the brand that Christianity has in the world.

But I hope that is not our brand. I hope we are among those who stand for a Christianity that lives out the lavish grace of Christ for all. We stand for God’s wide and open arms of love for all people. The Apostle Paul said it as well as anyone. He wrote to the multi-lingual, multi-ethnic church in Corinth that in Christ, God was reconciling the whole world to himself! The whole world!

Jesus revealed a God who reaches out to you and to me with a love that knows no boundaries. Regardless of our past, regardless of our flaws, regardless of our mistakes, God’s grace is for all. Jesus illustrated God’s grace by telling a story about a father who throws a party for a kid who disgraced the family reputation. Jesus acted out that grace by refusing to condemn a woman caught in the act of adultery, by giving encouragement to a woman who had been married five times, and by welcoming a criminal who was gasping his last breaths while being executed.

There is much about the book of Revelation that is strange and even incomprehensible. But what is clear is the message of the very last few lines. Let everyone who is thirsty, come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. That is truly grace for all.

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I thought of these last words in our Bible while we were in China for our son’s wedding. We were in the city of Guangzhou, a city with 10 million people, more people than in NYC! There, at the wedding of our son to a wonderful Chinese woman, I was asked to conduct a Christian ceremony.

The people who attended the wedding came from all kinds of religious and non-religious backgrounds. It was truly a multi-ethnic, multi-religious experience. But at the close of the vows, taken with a Chinese translator so that everyone could understand, I invited that gathering to pray. And when I led in that prayer, it was translated into Chinese so that all could understand, and the translator came to the “Amen” at the end. And instead of quietness at the end of the prayer, so help me the people cheered! They cheered a prayer, a Christian prayer!

Why? Because, I believe, they felt that the grace of Christ truly was for ALL, including them! And…for you and me.