January 23, 2022 – Following Jesus on campus

Pastor Amanda Highben, Texts: Luke 4: 14-21, 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a

The Chronicle just published the results of its survey of the class of 2025. This is the fifth consecutive year the paper has surveyed first-year students on a variety of a subjects, including demographics, academic plans, why they chose Duke, whether they’re interested in Greek life, if they identify as liberal, moderate, or conservative, and whether they or someone they know has tested positive for Covid.  In total, 380 students or about 25% of the class of 2025 completed the survey of 71 questions. Now granted, since the survey size was small, it’s difficult to know how representative the results are of the entire class. But I’m willing to bet that their answers to questions about their religious beliefs in particular are, in fact, representatives of many of their peers at Duke, undergraduate and graduate students, whether at state schools like UNC or private schools like Duke.  

When asked about their religious beliefs, the largest group of students identified as atheist, while the second largest said they were agnostic. Less than half identified as religious, whether that was Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist. Most relevant for us as a Lutheran church, about 11% said they were Protestant. Next, when asked how religious they were, on a scale from very religious to not at all religious, most of the students, about 40%, said they weren’t at all religious, while just 3% said they were very religious and 14% said they were religious. The rest fall somewhere in the middle, saying they were somewhat religious or not very religious.

Now, before we jump to any conclusions, I think it’s first important to say that the word “religious” is a loaded term these days. In fact, I suspect that such a small number of students said they were “very religious” or “religious” because the word “religious” can carry such a negative connotation. To say you are religious is to risk being thought of as intolerant, narrow-minded, rigid in your thinking and unable to tolerate questions or differences of opinion. To be “religious” is to run the risk of being labeled a bigot, fanatic or extremist. So I think it’s no wonder that a majority of first-years said they were “not at all” or “not very” religious.

Still, it’s harder to see caveats when the students were asked about their beliefs, with most responding that they are either atheist or agnostic.  After all, if I’m a Christian, I may not say I’m “religious” because of the baggage the word carries, but I wouldn’t check the atheist or agnostic box.  There really isn’t much wiggle room with these two categories, and the picture they give us is pretty clear. A majority of the class of 2025 either don’t believe in God at all or believes that although there might be a divine presence in the universe, nothing can really be known about it. Again, this is a Duke study of first-year, but it parallels trends on campuses across America no matter, from undeclared majors to PhD students preparing to defend their dissertations.

In light of this reality, I wouldn’t blame you if they wanted to keep your faith a private matter. I wouldn’t blame you if you were reluctant to identify as a follower of Christ or invite others to join us for Evening Prayer or Bible study. I would understand if you were hesitant to talk about much we love to sign hymns, share Christ’s peace with each other, confess ours sins and receive God’s forgiveness, and gather around the Lord’s table to be fed and nourished with his body and blood. I would understand because as a minority group among so many peers who don’t believe in God and define themselves as not at all or not very religious, I’d fear being misunderstood at best and judged at worst. I’d fear that the other person would have no idea what I was talking about. Worst of all, I’d fear being rejected as narrow-minded or intolerant or inflexible. What if the person I was talking to about my faith thought I was trying to proselytize them? Of course, it’s even harder when you’re a Lutheran in the South because people might know what a Methodist or Baptist or Episcopalian is, but what on earth is a Lutheran? Maybe the best course of action is to say nothing at all, to keep your faith to yourself and your relationship with Christ quiet and private.

And I suppose all of that would be fine if—and this is a very big if—if our faith was in a Messiah who kept to himself, who for his own part was private and quiet and didn’t ruffle any feathers or overturn any tables. But this is not the Son of God we know. Instead, as we see in Luke’s gospel tonight, Jesus was a very public figure, one in fact who was so visible and conspicuous that the news about him went viral; everyone apparently knew about him! “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee,” Luke writes, “and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” Everyone is posting and tweeting and texting about this son of Mary and Joseph as he returns to his hometown and enters the synagogue where he grew up.

But then he does something that really catches their attention, so much so that all their eyes will be “fixed” on him by the end of it. He stands up, unrolls the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and proclaims:

 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

I love how one theologian in particular describes this scene. She says:

The response of the people to this bold act is fascinating. Something clicked. They cannot take their eyes off him. He leaves the reading platform, sits down with the congregation. They are still staring at him. Perhaps Jesus felt compelled to say aloud what the worshipers are thinking silently. So he declares while sitting on the floor of the Jewish synagogue among his family and kin in his home village of Nazareth, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

Today this scripture has been fulfilled. Before their eyes, now, in the immediate present Jesus says that Isaiah’s good news is fulfilled in him. In other words: I am he—the one sent by God to free, redeem, heal, save, forgive, and make whole in body, mind, and spirit. No part of Jesus’ identity is hidden or veiled here. Look, Luke proclaims, here is the Messiah…Emmanuel, God-with-us. Here, now, today.

These first very public words that Christ speaks are often described as his “inauguration speech,” and rightly so. Here in just the fourth chapter of Luke, at the beginning of his mission, Jesus quotes Isaiah to define who he is and what he (and his followers) will be about. He unveils his platform and priorities: forgiveness, compassion, healing, grace. Through his words and actions, through his death and resurrection, he will reveal and embody the kingdom of God.

And God’s kingdom is anything but a private affair, intended for just a select few who are to keep the good news to themselves. Indeed, when Jesus says that God’s Spirit has anointed him to bring good news to the poor, the word for poor in the Greek includes a wide variety of people.  Because it wasn’t just lack of financial resources that could diminish your social standing. There were other factors too: gender, education, sickness, disability, occupation. Sound familiar? All of these could either make or break you, defining you as either an insider, worthy of God’s blessings, or an outsider, not worthy of consideration. But when Jesus proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor, he is lifting-up liberation on all fronts: spiritual, economic, social, and political. He has come to release all who are captive to sin and all who are captive to the systems of sin and death that can infect an entire society. When I say that Jesus was political, I don’t mean this in a partisan way, as though he would belong to a particular political party. I mean that he came in love for individuals, to save and heal them, but he also came in love for the polis, for the city, for the neighborhood, the community, the campus, the state, the world. The kingdom of God, in other words, is for all kin, for all people who crave a world of justice, peace, compassion, and reconciliation.

Which is why, dear ones, we can’t keep the good news to ourselves. As much as we might want to keep our faith quiet and private for fear of being misunderstood or judged, or because we think the majority of our peers aren’t interested in God at all, faith in Christ is not a solitary business. Faith in Christ compels us care, serve, heal, and love that world and our neighbors within it. This is no less than what we promise to do through the covenant God made with us in baptism: to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.

But bear this in mind: none of us are called to his holy, table-turning, transformative work alone. As Paul writes in our second lesson to the Corinthians, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” You may feel at times like you’re the only one striving for justice and peace, or one of the few who hungers for Communion and seeks out God in prayer, or looks for the face of Christ in your neighbors, in friends and strangers alike. But you, we, are members of the body of Christ and we confess that life is a gift we are called to live together. And just as Jesus was filled with the power of the Spirit, we too are empowered by the Spirit of God and upheld by God’s grace. “Today,” Jesus says, “this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Today, Christ is with us as we proclaim him through word and deed. Today we are forgiven. Today we share Christ’s peace with one another and pour out that peace for all who are poor, captive, and oppressed, whether on Duke’s campus, in Durham, the Triangle, or beyond. Today we pray for each other, those in need, and all of God’s creation, trusting in God’s abundant grace and mercy. Today we love because Christ first loved us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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