This past week, the Supreme Court of the U.S. made several decisions which upset half of our nation. It’s not surprising considering the polarizing times we live in. Of course, one of the ones that piqued the interest of many was the striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act which defined marriage as between one man and one woman. This was either a cause for great celebration or of great mourning depending upon one’s particular perspective. Depending upon where one stands, one either believes our country took a great step toward equality or has added further grease on the railway to hell.
Most of you know where I stand on this particular issue. If you have not read it in my blog, you have probably heard it. And if you haven’t heard it and would like me to tell you, I will be happy to talk to you and explain where I stand and why; however, I do not believe this is the time or place to do such things. What I wish to deal with this morning is something related but a bit different. I would like to wrestle with the question of how the church is called to work in and with a society that does not share its particular worldview. Now what do I mean by that? Let me explain by taking one avenue in the Supreme Court’s decision regarding marriage.
Historically, the Church has come to define marriage as the union between one man and one woman. Now, this is not the only kind of marriage found in the Bible–we can do an at length Bible study on that sometime if you like–in fact, I actually just did one where we touched on such matters. Most of the Christian church adheres to this definition, and those that do not are actually in the vast minority. So, the question arises for such churches, “How does the church respond when society embraces a very different understanding of marriage? What does the church do in such cases?”
● Does it rush out to register tons of like minded voters to change government by ballot?
● Does it send people out onto the street corners to warn about breaking God’s laws?
● Does it seek to lobby government officials to pass laws which are in accord with its particular understanding of marriage?
● Does it crawl into a hole and pretend the rest of society is wrong and that it alone holds the truth?
● Does it refuse to engage the surrounding culture and disassociate itself from it because it feels the surrounding culture is a horrid influence?
In some way, the church throughout history has embraced any one of these particular methods of response, but this morning I would like to argue for another way–a way which finds itself rooted and grounded in the earliest days of the Christian community before it ascended to power and prestige in the Roman empire.
If one studies the history of the early church as it began to spread from Jerusalem and into the Roman
empire, one is struck by the fact that it began between a rock and a hard place. The rock was Second Temple Judaism. When the early Church proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, indeed, God incarnate who was raised from the dead, the leaders within Judaism saw this as blasphemy. There was only one God–Yahweh–undivided who lived in the temple in the holy of holies. Any claim outside of this–including that Jesus is Lord–was seen to be breaking the first and greatest commandment. It was not too long before the Jewish authorities kicked the Christians out of the synagogue proclaiming that Christianity was incompatible with Judaism and was a heresy.
This put the Christian church in a very precarious position. For now it came up against the hard place: the Roman empire. For, you see, the Roman empire actually tried to be a pretty tolerant place. It accepted the practice of many and various religions within it–but those religions had to be authorized and accepted by the Roman government. You had to be on the acceptable list. Judaism was on that list. Christianity was not. This meant the Church could be justifiably persecuted within the Roman empire. Simply by being a Christian, you could find yourself on the short end of persecution. As I said, the early Church developed between a rock and a hard place.
But that is not the half of it. I don’t know how much you have studied about the Roman Empire, but it was not exactly a bastion of morality and justice–at least justice and morality as we understand it. I am sure you have probably heard reference to the pax romana or the peace of Rome, but I wonder if you know how Rome enforced that peace? Well, they weren’t exactly too particular about who they killed to enforce it. And perhaps you have heard about Caligula and his reign of terror as Emperor and his wonton assassination of others before he himself was assassinated. And in case you didn’t know where those infamous toga parties in college came from...well, let’s just say the Romans perfected such matters way before frats and sororities.
It was into this social and political milieu the early Church was born. And how did they handle such matters? How did they handle such a society? How did they strive to influence matters?
● Did they demand to be recognized as an acceptable religion?
● Did they lobby the emperor or the Roman senate for acceptance?
● Did they try to influence Roman law and change things from a legal standpoint?
I challenge you to read through the entire New Testament and find one place where they tried to do such things. I challenge you to show one place where St. Paul, or St. Peter, or St. Stephen, or St. John admonished the Roman empire to change their laws or practices or policies so that Christianity might be accepted, acceptable, or it’s morals and understandings be accepted by the entire empire.
You won’t find it. At best, you will find the apostles testifying before kings and governors. You will see them trying to convince them to become Christian, but you will not see them trying to make others follow Christ by changing governmental law. That is simply not there. Why?
The early Church believed they had a mission regardless of what laws the surrounding culture enacted. The early Church believed it had a mission regardless of the morality of the surrounding society. The early Church had been commissioned by Jesus himself to make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and teaching everyone everything that Christ had taught. The apostles threw themselves into this mission with reckless abandon. Through their preaching and teaching, which was empowered by the Holy Spirit, others were convicted and began following Christ.
When the Christians practiced their faith and lived lives according to God’s guidance and God’s commands, the surrounding culture took notice. Here was a group of people who voluntarily chose to live differently; move differently; talk differently; act differently; worship differently–who received no special privileges from the government or society–who at times was actively persecuted by the government and by authority. Yet, despite this, they carried on. They worked to tell others about Jesus no matter the circumstance.
This is one of the reasons Christianity did and continues to flourish no matter what kind of government is in power. The Church’s mission is not contingent upon what the government decides to do or not do. The Church’s mission is not contingent upon what certain parts of the society embrace in regards to morality. The Church’s mission is contingent upon the commands of Jesus Christ, and we are called to engage in it practicing a culture within a larger culture–engaging that larger culture and inviting people to leave those things behind and follow Christ.
But we must be willing to do so ourselves. We must be willing to embrace following Christ and practicing such faith right here and right now. And we have guidance as to how such a community looks. We have guidance in to how such a community functions. We are shown what it means to produce fruit. St. Paul reveals that fruit in the 5th chapter of the book of Galatians. “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, generosity, and self-control.” These are the fruits inspired by the Holy Spirit. Take a look around. Are we as a church producing them? Take a look in the mirror. Do you see these fruits in your life? Do you need the government or society making you produce them?
It doesn’t matter what the Supreme Court decides. It doesn’t matter what laws the government passes. We have a job. We have a calling. We are called to spread the good news of Jesus Christ and produce good fruit. Stop worrying about what everyone else is doing or thinks–produce good fruit; spread the good news of Jesus. The rest will take care of itself. Amen.