Moving Beyond Christendom
I want to start off today by telling you a story. Like most preachers I have a limited number of stories I can call on to illustrate points. This story is one of my favorites. If you’ve heard me tell it before, please forgive me because I promise to not notice when you repeat stories too!
There was a time when I was in youth group. At the time my father’s church only had boys. We were, much to our chagrin, a gang of Clyde’s without any Bonnie’s. So our group often joined with another youth group for special events. It was a way to socialize with girls. I’m sure that we are all familiar with more than a few Youth Pastors and boards have employed the boy-girl strategy.
In any case, there was one element to all of this has stayed with me for a very long time. When my youth group joined up with the other group we got to know the adults at that church too. It’s surprising how the kids who seem to not be paying attention to anything can sometimes be aware of more than you realize. For the most part our crew was normal, sure we had the normal teenage eccentricities, but we were all fairly well behaved. Like most teenagers, we all wanted to be different and unique while also striving to be included and the same as everyone else. Little did I know that adults do that too!
But there was one thing that we all agreed upon. The pastor at this other church was a dope. Even the kids at his church thought so. We didn’t really care that he was at a different church. That didn’t matter. No, it was his agenda that turned us off. Surprisingly, it was actually the Goth kids in the youth groups that first articulated what we were uncomfortable with. This pastor tried way too hard to be cool. He’d show up everywhere with his electric guitar and call us all “dude.” It was like this 50 year old man had never learned what others are blessed to learn. “Coolness” doesn’t come from trying really hard. Well, it might, but you can’t let anybody think that you’re trying.
You see, this pastor had fallen into the same thing that many of you ladies have likely experienced. If you’ve dated much you’ve probably gone on a date with that guy who is just way too desperate. You know the one I’m talking about! You see this church that we went to a lot also had a retired pastor who we all loved. Pastor Vern was in his eighties and about my height. He was goofy and strange in all the ways that adolescents perceive people of that age, but we all loved him. He wasn’t worried about being cool or accepted. He was just himself. He was comfortable in his own skin and happy to share his life with others because he was genuinely excited about life.
Sometimes I think groups of people can act like this. They can either be so wrapped up in fear that they bring about a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or they can be comfortable in their own skin – aware of who they are, what they’re out to do, and comfortable with their place in the world.
Connecting the Chapters:
Many of you might be wondering why I chose such a long passage of scripture to base my sermon off of. When choosing a passage for this week I had referred to the lectionary and recorded the passage. At the time it seemed long and it wasn’t until I got to the end of my sermon preparations that I realized that the lectionary text was actually shorter than I had thought. By this point, I had already felt moved to speak about the connection between these two chapters. So here I am, running with a lead that I felt called to follow. Sometimes it’s just good to get into the Old Testament, but fortunately for you there are only going to be six verses next week.
One of the first things that I noticed about this passage of scripture is the almost arbitrary placement of the beginning of chapter 53. One could, quite logically place it after verse 12 when the Suffering Servant theme starts, but the editors have instead chosen to place it in the middle of a train of thought almost as though they thought, “Hey, this is getting kind of long let’s throw in a number just to keep track of things.”
One thing jumped out to me almost immediately when I read this. These chapters are really connected! Some of you might be familiar with chapter 53, or more specifically the Suffering Servant passage. Christians have interpreted it a prophecy for the coming of Christ for millennia now. As a result, it can be familiar even if the book of Isaiah isn’t. On the other hand, we don’t really hear the preceding comments all too often.
At the time this was written the people were facing the Babylonian exile. They were facing a massive trial. When we hear these passages we hear the song of a people crying out for the day of their deliverance. We hear the moans of a people groaning under the loss of their nation, the loss of their Holy City, the loss of everything they had held dear. And yet, there is reason to rejoice!
This passage assures the its audience that the Lord is at work, that the world will come to know God through his great works, and that comfort and salvation will flow to the ends of the earth. This is a great message of hope. It’s a message of hope rooted in the assurance that Christ will bring about salvation through the “suffering servant.” In its original context the exiled Israel bore rejection, suffering, infirmity, and affliction. But this passage also foretells the role of Christ, who rose up out of Israel to bear the sins of the world and bear the weight of our humanity. A Messiah that came not as a conquering hero, but as a slain martyr. A Savior who came not as an emperor, but as an executed threat to the established order. This Christ came to free us from our contexts and failures in a way that defies expectations. This Jesus came not to establish a new set of laws or cultural norms, but to bring people into the Kingdom of God.
Diagnosing the Christian West:
Many of you have noticed that I put a peculiar word in my sermon title for this week. The word is “Christendom” and it refers to a form or model of Christianity that began in the 4th Century and began to crumble several hundred years ago. Some things take a long time to pass away particularly when they’ve lasted for over 1700 years. You see “Christendom” began when Christianity became united with the Roman Empire. Although our religion had been a place for outsiders, the lower classes, and a few intellectuals; it soon became the official religion of the elite.
Long after Rome’s fall Christianity was still tied to government, politics, power, and the definition of Western culture. Although the New World has for the most part been created from the disestablishment of this union, we have still been the inheritors of a cultural legacy – of a sense that, “To be American is to be Christian.” Awkwardly, times are changing. Many of you have been to Europe or even Canada. If you’ve been in England, France, or Quebec you will have probably seen the mausoleums that were once churches.
You see, Christendom is dying. But I am up here this morning to tell you that God does not need our all too human conventions. God does not need our legacies and pride. If there is blame to be had, it lies with us. We have, for all too long, grown comfortable in the control we have felt. We have grown comfortable in the alliances we have made.
Charting a New Way Forward:
But I am up here this morning to tell you that God is at work; that God is cleaning out our rubbish and making us ready for a new work! As I’ve grown up I’ve seen a lot of different reactions to this issue. There are two problematic approaches that I’ve seen repeatedly. The first is the ostrich approach. Some people see the changes in society and in church and bury their heads in the sand. Others see the changes and act like manic chickens. They run around in fear trying to find anything they can to fix it.
The ostriches continue on as they always have praying that things will never change. The manic chickens, on the other hand, live in a culture of fear. They search for any and every ‘fix’ that can save things. More often than not, they decide to play the cool game. They do anything they can in desperation. They change the music, add a coffee shop, or maybe even a rock-wall! Religion becomes a competition for the dwindling number of people who managed to keep their cultural buy-in past their 18th birthday.
My friends, none of those methods are wring or bad, but they’re not the solution. But my concern this morning is the growing crowd who weren’t raised in church and have no desire to buy into the things we might have grown comfortable with. We are called to minister to all people, even if that means embracing change. Luckily there is a way forward and I believe that today’s scripture gives us a hint of this. You see, the Christian West is entering its own type of captivity – a captivity to the past and a captivity to change. But above all of this is hope. Above all of this is the message that Christ came to liberate us from all our worries. He came not as a conquering hero, as the empires of our past have so often portrayed him, but as a humble servant of love. I believe that there are three things we can start doing today in ourselves to address this issue:
(1) Acknowledge that we can’t always count on the models of the past.
(2) Realize that a change in form or method does not mean defeat.
(3) Take the changes that surround us as meaningful and purpose laden. Find meaning and excitement in new opportunities.
Finding Hope for Troubled Times:
If there’s one thing I want to emphasize this morning it’s that there is hope. God always provides hope in troubled times. It does not always take the shape that we expect it to. It doesn’t always feel familiar. But there’s one thing that we all know, a person who strives with all their being to be the best version of whoever it is they are, will get results. I have a friend who works as a CrossFit Coach and he recently shared his own story.
There was a time when he was like most other lunks at the gym. He worked out because he was concerned with how he looked. He wanted to attract attention from the ladies and the respect of men. But then a day came when he tried something new. He tried CrossFit. He got hooked on something deeper. Rather than concerning himself with how other people judged him, he actually bought in to who he wanted to become. It wasn’t about the need for other people’s approval anymore. It became a total buy-in. A commitment to who he wanted to be as a person, not who someone else wanted him to be. It became an activity of authenticity. Like the pastor who tried too hard to be cool but failed, he hadn’t been doing it for the right reasons. But one day, he woke up and found a new sense of self. He discovered what he had been looking for all along – a new self. A sense of himself that was comfortable with who he was.
My friends, this morning I want to tell you that there is hope. God is at work bringing about a new creation, and a new liberation. We as the people of God are invited to participate in this. But the best way to do this is to start in the most important place – our souls. We need to become comfortable in who we are as Christians. Christianity does not depend on us, it depends on the grace of a God who liberates all of humanity through self-giving love. It is not confined to our preferences or our traditions. It is the outpouring of God’s love into the world and the joyous response of God’s children to this.
The future hold many unknowns, but we can have hope in the God who calls us personally. New eras are opportunities for those who seek adventure. Change is the thing that comes regardless of whether it is sought. But for those who know themselves, it provides an opportunity. We are on the threshold of an age when we can preach the Gospel to a whole new audience. We are approaching an era when we can find new projects, new opportunities, and new audiences. But we must embrace this in prayer, openness, and earnest spiritual growth. Christ redeems all who are willing, particularly those who seek the presence of God in their spirit.
May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields and,
Until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.