(a sermon by Mark Parent)
(delivered at the Pereaux Church)
(September 11, 2011 – Romans 13:8-14)
Have you ever wondered how they did it? The early Christians, I mean. After all, at the time of Christ’s death, the group of apostles were in shambles, one having betrayed Jesus, the other having denied Jesus and all of them having forsaken him.
And yet, within a few years, the Christian church had spread far and wide. Indeed, it had grown to such an extent that when the Roman Empire was threatening to crumble into dust, the Emperor Constantine turned to the one group which could provide unity across the far reaching boundaries of the Roman Empire; he turned to the Christian Church.
One scholar, commenting on this exponential growth, coined a wonderful sentence to explain the Christian community’s remarkable success. He said that the early Christians outlived, outloved, and outdied everyone else.
In our Epistle Reading for this morning, taken from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, Paul writes about the need to live honourably, as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Peter describes a similar list in his letters with a few other additions but the point is the same, the early Christians were called in the midst of a decaying and degenerate society to live lives based on ethics and morality.
In his biblical commentary, Maxie Dunham tells the story of an American Red Cross collection of food, clothing and medicine, gathered together to send to help the people of Biafra. Inside one of the boxes which had been donated was a letter which read, “We have recently been converted and because of our conversion we want to try to help. We won’t ever need these again. Can you use them for something?” The box contained several Klu Klux Klan sheets which were cut down to strips and eventually used to bandage the wounds of the Biafran people.
We need to be careful here for to outlive your neighbour in Christ’s name is a wonderful thing, of course, but ethical living and morality can so easily become tainted by pride, by that damnable sin of self-righteous pride. And, unfortunately, Christianity far too often and far too quickly degenerates into a moralistic faith. I remember a little song which I was taught at Daily Vacation Bible School. And, in particular, I remember the fervour with which I sang it. The song goes “one door and only one and yet its sides are two. I’m on the inside on which side are you?” But in my mind I always sang it like this “One door and only one and yet its sides are two. I’m on the inside (nanna nanny boo hoo) on which side are you?”
If they had just outlived their neighbours the early Christians would never had experienced the success which they did experience. They did something more, much more. They outloved their non-Christian neighbour which is why Paul in his letter to the Romans summarizes the law in a way similar to that which Christ did. Paul writes, “the commandments . . . are summed up in this word, love your neighbour as yourself. Love does no wrong to neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
The early church was a community characterised by one thing above all, it was a community of love. And it is, I submit to you, only when the Church becomes a community of love that people will be drawn to Christ.
In his book Community Making and Peace, M. Scott Peck a Christian psychiatrist, tells of lecture engagements in which he asked people not to speak to him during the intermission periods because he needed that time to renew his thoughts and his energy; and so he asked them to save their questions for the question period.
Invariably, Scott Peck notes, people would approach him and when he would reminded them of his request they would burst out, “oh yes, Dr. Peck but so and so from my church is here and I can’t let him/her hear my question because they might think poorly of me.”
What a damning criticism of modern church life! In his book entitled I Believe in the Church, David Watson writes these words:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one. . . . Wrap it up carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it safe in a casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable.
The early Christians did not allow their hearts to become unbreakable but, like their master, they loved, even to the point of letting their hearts become broken.
And here we move to yet another characteristic of the early Church. Because if you love, really love, love God with all your heart, soul and mind. If you love to the very fullest, then you come to the place where you are willing to give the greatest gift of all, you are willing to give your very life in order to express that love.
The early Christians outlived, outloved and, then this, they outdied everyone else and that is why the church grew. Says one author, “the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church.”
Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was taken when he was eighty-six years old and tried for his faith. The early Christians were often called atheists because they refused to worship the Emperor as divine. And so Polycarp was called before the Roman magistrates and commanded to say “down with the atheists.” With a wave of his hand towards the crowd which had come to see him die, he cried out “away with the atheists.” The proconsul knowing that he was mocking him said to him “Swear and I will release thee, curse the Christ.”
And, even though he knew what was to come, Polycarp replied “eighty and six years have I served him, and he hath done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?” He was taken and his body was burned to death, for his faith, for his love for Jesus.
To love deeply enough is to be willing to die. Years ago, a young mother was making her way across the hills of South Wales, carrying her tiny baby in her arms when she was overtaken by a blinding blizzard. She never reached her destination and when the blizzard had subsided her body was found by searchers beneath a mound of snow. But they discovered that before her death she had taken off all her outer clothing and wrapped it about her baby. When they unwrapped the child, to their great surprise and joy, they found he was alive and well. She had mounded her body over him and given her life for his. Years later that child, David Lloyd George, became prime minister of Great Britain and one of England’s greatest statesmen.
Of course very few of us, probably no one of us, will be called upon to give their life for their faith or even for their love of a child or a friend. But perhaps there is another type of martyrdom, of self giving love, we are called upon to engage in and that is the martyrdom of those who are willing to turn their back on their own dreams and hopes and aspirations in order to assist in the birthing of the dreams and hopes of others.
I think in this vein of the many missionaries I have known who gave up the opportunity for money and comfort in order to preach Christ and to live Christ. Or of parents, mainly mothers, sometimes fathers who gave up or tempered their own ambitions in order to give their children something more precious than money and that is their time.
Or perhaps it is reputation. As the religious leaders said of Jesus “he is a friend of wine bibbers and prostitutes.” His reputation, you see, meant little to him. It paled in comparison with his love for humanity.
E. Stanley Jones, well-known Christian missionary in India, tells of a situation where the fellow members of his Christian community, called an ashram, helped him in a problem regarding his reputation. It seems that for a number of years Jones had supported a prominent man financially. When the time came that Jones could no longer support him, the man turned on Jones and attacked him in the public press. So E. Stanley Jones sat down and wrote a letter of reply of a few sentences, the kind of reply in which you don’t give your opponent a leg to stand on. As he put it, “the kind of reply you are proud of the first five minutes, the second five minutes you are not so certain, and the third five minutes you know that you are wrong.” Before he mailed this letter he sent it to the Christian ashram to get their opinion of it. They sent it back with three words written on the margin, “not sufficiently redemptive.” When E. Stanley Jones received their reply he knew what he had to do. He tore up his letter and said, “Lord, you’ll have to take care of my reputation.” A few weeks later he received a heartfelt apology from the man who had attacked him.
There are many different ways to die to self, not just physical death. And while, as Christians we will not be called to die physically we will be called to die in other ways, out of love for the other, and ultimately, of course, out of love for God.
The early Christians outlived, outloved, and outdied their non-Christians neighbours and so the Church grew. And that it how the church will grow today. Not through programs or entertaining shows or slick organisations or fancy preaching but only through ordinary Christians like you and like me living, loving and dying to self for the sake of Christ and for the glory of God.
It is also, I suggest, the only way in which our society will survive the coming challenges of an uncertain future. I have told you before and I repeat again, politics will not right what is wrong with our society. I watched Barak Obama give his speech to Congress the other evening on job development. It was a good speech and will have a positive impact but it will not solve the crisis in the United States because at root that crisis is a spiritual one. It is a crisis of greed, of fear, or laziness, of me first, of viewing life through the lens of materialism. And the only solution is not political programming but love for neighbour, sacrificial, self giving love which acts like leaven does in a piece of dough.
In a more local vein, I heard of a teacher had a tough week at school. Out of the slightly more than 30 students in her class almost 15 are students with no self respect, swearing at this teacher, telling her in class that she was an f. . .ing bitch! Think of it almost fifty percent of her class!
And, of course, when you trace the children’s’ behaviour back, often, not always, but often it starts in the home with parents with similar attitudes. What will help these children and their parents? Good programs, more money for education, yes, but ultimately it is love and love alone which can turn these young lives around.
The early Church came into being at a time when civilization was collapsing. We live in similar times now when our western civilization seems to be collapsing. And so the call to love becomes even more important in our day and age. We cannot live off of the legacy of the past. It has been used up already; instead we must create a new legacy for our children and our grandchildren. And so Paul’s words fit out time well, “the night is far gone, the day is near.” Live then as children of the light. Live as children of love.