GRACE TO YOU AND PEACE
FROM GOD OUR FATHER
AND THE LORD AND SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST, AMEN.
The twentieth century was dubbed “The Christian Century” because as it dawned, it seemed that the entire world would become Christian during that time. William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury called the emergence of world Christianity, “the great new fact of our time.” In 1900 John Mott wrote his classic, The Evangelization of the World in This Generation. The mood was running high in terms of progress and expansion. Piety and politics worked together to bring Christ and Western culture to the peoples of Asia and Africa . An Ecumenical Missionary Conference was held in New York City in 1900 and one of its leaders announced, “We are going into a century more full of hope and promise and opportunity than any period in the world’s history.” Of course as the century progressed there were great world wars, revolutions, depressions, genocidal annihilations of Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Rwandans. Rather than being a century of world Christianization, it was a century of decline in the traditional centers of the Christian faith, in Europe and North America.
Carl Braaten, one of the greatest Lutheran theologians of this century and a son of Madagascar missionaries, recalls that when he went to Luther Seminary in St. Paul, the students took courses on missions which were basically to recruit personnel for the mission fields. Now the study of missions has become, in his words, “the orphan of the seminary.” The mainline Christian churches are not sending missionaries any more—volunteers perhaps, mission trips like our own trips to Tijuana , Mexico ; Guatemala and Jamaica, but no longer sending many missionaries to foreign lands. In fact Western nations have become mission fields themselves, again in Braaten’s words, “lands populated by neo-pagans, in the grasp of secularism, atheism and nihilism. Millions who still call themselves Christians are at best nominal church members, ill-grounded in the church’s scriptures, creeds, moral teachings and worship traditions.” And while many churches cling to their former identities and pretend that nothing has changed, David Barrett of the World Christian Encyclopedia estimates that each week 53,000 persons in Europe and America are leaving their churches never to return.
The twentieth century may not have become “the Christian century” but the great missionary movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has borne great fruit. The center of gravity for Christianity is moving to the southern hemisphere. The energy for Christian mission is coming from southern lands. Some of you may remember Temba , the Zulu intern pastor at United Lutheran Church . He came from South Africa to North America and is now serving as a pastor in the Virgin Islands. Temba was a good sign to our community of the new world of Christianity. Southern nations are sending missionaries to the north and much of the vitality in the European churches is coming from parishes made of West Indians and Africans and Asians. The world is changing and the church is changing but God is still working great new things. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish existential philosopher, looked at Christian Denmark in the nineteenth century and observed in his prophetic Attack upon Christendom, that he could not find anything resembling the Christianity of the New Testament. He lamented that “little by little Christianity has become exactly the opposite of what it was in the New Testament.”
What Kierkegaard called the distortion of Christianity arose because for fifteen hundred years the Church was the established religion of Europe. Christianity relied upon state power to enforce religious adherence and religious conformity. As Lutherans, we are descendents of those state establishments in Norway and Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Germany. Even now people in those places are almost all baptized but few go to church. In Norway, they are still debating whether any religion besides the Lutheran should be taught in school. In Sweden, they have just recently begun to uncouple church and state. Here in the United States, we are still having a great national debate about prayer in the public schools and teaching biblical creationism and the argument whether or not we are a Christian nation.
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The Christian faith was distorted when everyone is considered Christian. Then there is little incentive to reach out with the Gospel. Being a missionary means bringing the faith to distant lands, perhaps, but not to people here at home. And then it seems that we lost incentive to bring the Gospel “to Greenland’s icy mountains and India’s coral strand.” The next step which many have made was to decide that all roads pretty much lead to the same place. Being a Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim or Christian seemed not so important. In fact, one can take a little bit of this and a little bit of that and seemingly construct one’s own spiritual edifice. Back in the 1980s, Robert Bellah in his bestseller, Habits of the Heart, called this sort of thing ” Sheilaism ” named for a woman whom he had met, Sheila, who made her own spirituality out of bits of different religions and popular psychology and new age ideas. If we look around us “Sheilaism” may have become the most popular religion today.
As early as 1909, Canon Walter Hobhouse charged that the church had become domesticated, had simply settled for a cozy niche. It had become a church without a mission to its surrounding world. He called upon the church to reclaim its apostolic charter, to be “a missionary church not only in heathen lands, but in every country.” W.A.Visser t’Hooft even in the 1970s wrote, “Evangelism in a neo-pagan situation,” in which he said,
“It is high time that Christians recognize
that they are confronted by a new paganism . . .
Christians have been very slow to recognize
the pagan elements in modern culture.
They were so convinced that the Western world was a Christianized world
that they could not make themselves believe that pagan forces
could exert a big influence in its midst.
So they tried to console themselves
by arguing that the new pagans were really Christians
who expressed themselves in a somewhat different manner.”
We must realize that to be Christian, we must reach out. Mission is not something that Christians do but who we are. It is easy to make fun of missionaries but by and large they accomplished what they set out to do which was to make Christians of those who had never heard the Gospel and plant churches where there were none. The millions of Christians in Latin America, Africa and Asia are a direct result of Christian missionary efforts to spread the Gospel. It is also easy to make fun of Christian evangelism here at home. I know I am often very uncomfortable with the television evangelists and those who seem to wear their religion on their sleeve. But I also know that the mainline churches have not been doing much evangelism. We have been preaching to the choir and not in the highways and byways. I think much of the evangelical fringe of Christianity distorts the message into something reductionistic, too emotional and too political, sometimes manipulative. But then I wonder why we have not been countering that message by one that is more inclusive, rational and respectful.
In our second lesson today, St. Paul along with Silvanus and Timothy is writing to the Christians of Thessalonica. Scholars believe this is likely Paul’s first letter, written about 50 A.D., and thus the earliest writing in the New Testament. He is commending the Thessalonica congregation for its work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in Christ. These people once did not know the Lord; most were not Jewish and never knew the true God. But now they have turned away from idols to serve the living and true God.
How did this happen? It was because of the Word of God preached and enacted by those missionaries, Paul and Silvanus and Timothy. God had chosen these people for faith but God could only work through the Word that was brought by these three men. In spite of persecution, the Thessalonians received the word of joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Now most of us can not preach like Paul or pray like Peter or sing like angels—that was in the anthem a few Sundays ago—but we can witness to the faith that is in us, our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. We can speak the Christian word and we can do Christian work. St. Paul is commending the Thessalonians for the example that they are setting for other believers. The Thessalonian congregation can not be faulted for hiding its conviction or watering down its message. In fact their faith in God has become known through Macedonia and Achaia—all of Greece—St Paul writes. Their faith and works are strong because they know just what they believe: that God raised Jesus from the dead and believing in him they are saved, they are rescued from the wrath to come.
This is still the center of our faith. We believe that we are saved because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. We too have passed from death to eternal life. When we reach our life’s end and stand before the judgment throne of God, it is only because of Jesus that we are forgiven and can enter the kingdom of God. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” It is jarring to hear these words in a culture which says that every path leads to the same place—that the truth of the Gospel is just one of many truths or no truth at all. But they are true words. The Gospel still has the power to change lives, to make bad people good, to bring us to eternal life.
Let us pray:
God, grant us the power to speak your word with conviction, to witness to the love you have shown us, and to make us a good example to those who do not yet know you. In Christ’s Name, Amen.