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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 12, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: John 20:19-31 and Acts 4:32-35
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
If there’s one word that sums up this past year for me, for us, I think it’s “change.” And it’s not just the change that’s obvious – our change of worship location. Society is changing. The church universal is changing. And in response, our life as a congregation must continue changing.
I’ve talked before about two big changes in society that have big impacts on us – the end of Christendom and the shift to a post-modern worldview. Let me offer you this review.
Christendom began to take shape when the Roman Emperor, Constantine, declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. This was a big policy shift on for the Empire, which until then had alternated between persecuting Christians and the church, and simply hoping they would go away. It was, arguably, an even bigger change for the church itself. Imagine going from being on the “outs” socially to suddenly being at the center of the in-group! Imagine being a political non-entity for years and waking up one day to find you are a U.S. Senator!
As Christendom developed, church and state were increasingly allied, and Christianity and culture interwoven. During the reign of Charlemagne (around 800), the now “Holy Roman Empire” (Western Europe) was divided into parishes, geographical areas within earshot of the church bells. Each parish had a parish church and a parish priest. People were members of the church because they were born and lived there. The “mission field” lay far away, beyond the borders of the empire.
In the “new world” of North America, Christendom was both different and similar to its European version. It was different because the new nation was founded on, among other things, the separation of church and state. But while Christianity in North America was not a legally established religion, it was culturally established. And not just Christianity, but Protestant Christianity. The Protestant Church enjoyed cultural support and sanction.
For example, when I was a child, the stores were not open on Sunday and no children’s sporting event would ever be scheduled on a Sunday morning. This was a subtle but powerful form of support for the Christian churches and their day of worship. But by the time I was a teenager, things had started to change in North American culture. Our society became increasingly pluralistic (many religions) and diverse (many cultures and languages), and as a result, became increasingly secular (nonreligious). Protestant Christianity’s cultural privilege started to wane.
Ours is no longer so clearly a culturally Christian society. There are vestiges. Union City, Newark, and Fremont schools are all still connecting the spring break schedule to the Protestant celebration of Easter. But the idea that mainline Protestant churches are the religious center society is disappearing.
Consider, for instance, the fact that for its first 180 years, justices on the U.S. Supreme Court were always male, always white, and almost always Protestant. Only five Catholics severed prior to 1950s.[i] The first Jew wasn’t appointed until 1916 and only three Jews served prior to 1950s.[ii] Today, the number of Protestants on the Supreme Court of the U.S. is exactly zero.
What we are seeing is the end of American Christendom. This is not the same as the end of Christianity. Indeed, it may be a new beginning! Because the culture is no longer nominally Christian, and the church is no longer allied with dominant powers and the cultural status quo, there is not only change, but also opportunity.
In many ways, the church in North America today may have more in common with the early church of the first four centuries, the church before Constantine set the Christendom ball rolling. Once again, the church has the opportunity to be what Jesus called it to be, “salt for the earth” and “leaven (yeast) for the loaf.”
This is a major shift. In Christendom, the church’s purpose is chiefly offering programs for its members, doing some local charity work, and leaving mission to “missionaries” serving far away. In this changing society, each congregation is a “mission outpost.” We can no longer think of the church as “for ourselves” and mission as “for others.” The “for ourselves” and “for others” way of thinking is a false and unhelpful dichotomy. The church belongs to God and is God’s people being and doing God’s mission in every aspect of its life, whether worship or teaching, forming small groups or ministries of service in the community and in the world!
The other societal change I’ve talked about before is the shift from modernity to post-modernity. It is equally, perhaps even more powerful and important than the end of Christendom. It is also much harder to explain. I will try.
We can think of three historic worldviews eras. The pre-modern world was the world before the Renaissance. It is the pre-scientific world. The modern world begins probably sometime in the 1500s with the Renaissance (and, interestingly, the Reformation) – or at least the seeds of modernity are sown at that time. In the next century, Isaac Newton is thinking about gravity and other scientific concepts. Certainly by then we’ve entered the modern age. The modern worldview has been ending for the past century or so, and with its ending, the post-modern worldview is emerging.
In the pre-modern world, there was no distinction between the physical world and the metaphysical world. The modern world started to recognize a difference between the physical and the metaphysical. Mainline Protestantism did a pretty good job of making Christianity fit into a modern understanding of the world. Thus, scientific explanations are forced upon the miracles of Jesus, or we insist that the stories about the miracles are purely metaphorical. (Parenthetically, I’d point out that fundamentalism, theological conservatism, and much of Catholicism, pretty much circled the wagons against modernity.)
An aspect of the post-modern worldview is the invitation to look at things from multiple points of view. Experience becomes important. Each individual’s experience and interpretation of that experience is important. Rather than explaining away a miracle, perhaps a scripture reveals how the people of Jesus’ day experienced and interpreted that event. One person’s experience and interpretation of it, the community’s experience and interpretation of it, even Jesus’ experience and interpretation of it are all equally valid.
“Modernity [has] held that reason and rational thought are the primary human faculties and the keys to gaining control over life and ridding the world of pernicious superstitions (which is the way many moderns saw religion). By contrast, post-moderns tend to think we’ve drunk too heavily at the wells of reason. They are open to intuition, emotional intelligence, embodied knowledge and mystery. Where moderns wanted their preachers to explain [or explain away] mystery, post-moderns want to experience mystery.”[iii]
“Moderns … were very big on objectivity and the idea that we observers could step outside our own time, social conditioning, and biases to see things ‘objectively.’ On this count too, post-moderns are doubters. ‘Everybody is coming from somewhere,’ say post-moderns. ‘What you call “objective truth,” we call the interests of the powerful and privileged.’”[iv]
Why does this matter? On one level the answer is easy: there’s a huge change in cultural sensibility from modern to post-modern. Many of our churches worked well for moderns, but do not work as well for post-moderns. What’s missing is spiritual connection and experience, the experience of the sacred, transcendent Other. Understanding this makes it much easier to understand the growing interest in “spirituality” over the past thirty or forty years and why people who identify themselves as “Spiritual but not religious” is one of the fastest growing segments of our population. Moderns wanted their preachers to explain mystery; post-moderns want to experience mystery. Isn’t it sad that people feel that church is not the best place to pursue their “spiritual” interests?
In the midst of these societal changes, the church is also in the midst of its semi-millennial rummage sale. You may remember Pastor Brenda or me talking about this before. I was introduced to the idea by Phyllis Tickle. Phyllis Tickle says she got the idea from Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer.[v] This is how Tickle explains it:
“[A]bout every 500 years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable … hard shell, that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.”
Around the year 500, the Christian world was thrown into chaos with the fall of the Roman Empire. Out of that chaos, something new emerged: Gregory the Great created a church run by monasteries and convents.
About 500 years later, the Eastern and Western churches split in what is called “The Great Schism,” and a church that vested all power in the bishop of Rome (also known as the Pope), was created.
About 500 years after that, in the 1500s, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and others sought to reform the calcified Roman Catholic church and ended up starting Protestant churches.
And 500 years after that – well, we’re living 500 years after that, and something new is beginning to emerge.
The first of these church rummage sales that Phyllis Tickle talks about happens around the year 500, at the fall of the Roman Empire. Of course, there was another big shake up in the world of religion 500 years earlier, around the year 30, when the disciples of Jesus experienced the resurrection. They didn’t know what to make of their experiences at first.
The wonderful story of Thomas doubting the accounts of his friends is an example of a pre-modern explanation that can be quite difficult for the modern mind to accept. Caravaggio’s painting based on the story that’s on your bulletin covers, painted at the dawn of the modernity, treats the story quite literally, almost scientifically. My post-modern view wants neither to take this story literally nor to assume it’s simply metaphor. I want to hear it as this gospel writer’s truth. Yet, when I apply it to my life, my experience, I find myself connecting to it symbolically.
Notice how John tells us these disciples recognized Christ in their midst: By his wounds.[vi] Might that be a clue for me about where I should look for the resurrected Christ in my midst? In the wounded? Perhaps when I reach out and touch the wounded, I will realize that I am in the presence of the resurrected one. Perhaps when I work to repair inequalities, to build community, to end oppression, to heal the wounds of exclusion, I will be doing the work of the resurrected church.
This seems to be what those first disciples figured out. In the reading from Acts, we hear a report about the new community that grew out of these resurrection experiences. Talk about change. No one claimed ownership of any property, for everything they owned was held in common. The author of Acts says that those who owned property sold it and pooled the proceeds in the common treasury. I’ve got to say that in an agrarian culture, selling your property seems like a silly idea to me. Having land means having food. But that’s what we’re told happened.
I’m struck by two things in this story. First, when they gave money, they didn’t give their pocket change; they gave their everything. Second, I think there’s a mistranslation. Verses 33 and 34 are typically translated, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. [period, new sentence] There was not a needy person among them, for as many owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.” The Greek, however, has the word “for” right between what is translated as two sentences. The “for” has been left out. When I look at my interlinear Greek text, it looks to me like a better translation would say, “ … and great grace was upon them all for there was not a needy person among them …”[vii] What does that say about reaching out to the wounded to find the resurrected Christ?
Drawn together in one heart and soul by the power of the Spirit, these first disciples created this counter cultural community of compassion. Imagine what would happen if we let the love of God overflow in our hearts, if we truly yielded to God and lived in the full, unhindered presence of the Spirit.[viii] I know I resist. I know my fear gets in my way.[ix] But, oh, if I could just trust a little more deeply. Imagine how that would change my world.
Change. That’s the word I said sums up this year for me. And not just pocket change.
During this year, we have experienced the major change of location – twice. Now we’re settling into this new place and we have the challenge of how to be good stewards of it. And we have the challenge of how to be the church in this changing society, right in the midst of the church’s semi-millennial rummage sale.
The changes for our church are not over. But that shouldn’t be surprising. Jesus was all about change. Jesus was all about transformation.
Let’s discovery what God has in store for us next.
[i] Demographics of the Supreme Court of the United States, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_the_Supreme_Court_of_the_United_States, (22 May 2010).
[ii] List of Jewish United States Supreme Court justices, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Jewish_United_States_Supreme_Court_justices, (22 May 2010).
[iii] Anthony Robinson, It’s a Whole New World!, http://www.ucc.org/vitality/ready-set-grow/know-community-culture/its-a-whole-new-world.html, (22 May 2010).
[vii] Jason Byassee, “Can God Breathe?” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/can-god-breathe (accessed 6 April 2015).
[ix] Clark H. Pinnock, “The Acts Connection,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/acts-connection (accessed 6 April 2015).