A few years before my grandmother was born Thomas Edison ran the first direct current to 85 homes in New York City powering a total of 400 light bulbs. She was a teenager when Ford first mass produced the Model T. She graduated the 9th grade, making her well-educated for a child of her era in rural Kentucky. She married my grandfather after her first husband died. Ark Sims had a second-grade education but learned to sign his name in cursive. I saw his signature on a check for my mother’s first semester of college in 1948. Mom did not have electricity until 1946 when the Rural Electrification Act subsidized that reality. Every night after dinner and evening chores, my grandmother sat in a rocking chair by the Warm Morning stove, itself a technological heating improvement, reading the Bible by coal oil lamp light. My mother remembers her father gently correcting his wife’s mispronunciations. In the coldest parts of their Kentucky winters, my mother loved to sit in the brooder shed, reading her library books, because they kept the brooder shed warmer than the house for the benefit of the hundred baby chicks. Can you imagine that world?
Granted my grandparents were behind the change curve but not by too much. Try to drink in the cultural change that has swept our world. Imagine your family all sitting around a stove listening to one person read the Family Bible for 30 minutes each night.
When the Apollo rockets went to the moon, my grandmother did not believe it. When challenged by a grandchild, she demanded, “How do you know they went to the moon?” My cousin said “I saw it on TV!” Grandma Clack chortled, “Child, you can’t believe the foolishness on that TV!”
Some forward-looking folks believe we are in era of unprecedented societal change. Never before could I hold a set of encyclopedias, phone, camera, camcorder, matchmaker, 24hour news, stacks of records, video vault, bookstore, Twitter, Snap-chat, department store, complete arcade, translator, travel guide,, fitness tracker, national phonebook, photos of all my friends’ children, video phone, calculator, altimeter, GPS, weather radar, market indicator, virtual community, and a thousand other APPlications in a 6 ounce device I can hold between two fingers.
If the printing press fueled the Protestant Reformation, what changes does our Smart-Phone-Era hold for us? What does it mean that anyone can read John Wesley’s sermons, watch a Buddhist video, or offer commentary on anything with a few finger swipes? What does it mean that parents hire all manner of coaches for sports or private lessons for the arts, but we are so busy we rarely read the Bible together?
The church is facing huge changes. The Pew Research Center major survey found “that the percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% …in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%.” Additionally, some 34% of Millennials are “nones” claiming no religious identity or organized practice. (pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape)
Martin Luther King Jr prophetically predicted this shift. “But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.” (1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail) Perhaps disgust has turned to indifference.
What will these trends mean for our national cohesion? Will the church offer our culture leaven, flavor, or light? What will these trends mean for young people, who may face the world without a solid foundation in Christ to uphold them?
Where might we find guidance in our ever-changing world? The Book of Acts offers a guide for navigating cultural change. In Acts, the nascent church navigates an unfamiliar Gentile world.
Jesus lived much like a Jewish Rabbi. All 12 disciples shared the same set of Jewish ideas and customs. The Gospel takes place “on the Sabbath”, around the “synagogue”, and as “the Passover was approaching.” However, before Acts concludes, the Apostle Paul will preach in Athens, standing in the Areopagus surrounded by pagan idols. There Paul will quote Greek philosopher and poets. Paul will dine with Greeks and bring a bi-racial Greek preacher onto the mission team. Most Jewish-Christians could not understand his “mission to the Gentiles.” The Acts of the Apostles engages an unfamiliar Gentile culture!
Perhaps a better study of Acts would begin in Luke 24 or Acts 1, but due to time constraints, a clearer commission, and continuity with my Easter sermon, we will begin in Matthew’s Gospel.
Do you Remember last week’s Easter Sermon dictated by angels and first preached by three women, “Christ is Risen from the dead and is going ahead of you… there you will see him!”? Do you recall Jesus’ commissioning: “Do not be afraid, Go and tell my brothers to go…there they will see me!” Do you feel Easter’s motion? Jesus always runs a few steps ahead of the church, going on ahead of us, blazing the trail, and calling to us lagging behind, “Come, follow Me.”
Often, we want to stay where we are! We fear God might call us away from our settled lives. We love “that old time religion” that was “good enough”. We love “standing on the promises of God.” It lets us rest where we are. It leaves us alone. We do not have to go anywhere or follow Jesus very far!
Have you heard the old tired joke about the Methodist and change? How many Methodists does it take to change a light bulb? “What? Change a lightbulb, my mother gave me that light bulb!”
Jesus names our preference to avoid change in the parable of the wineskins. Hear Luke 5:33-29. Levi threw a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of party people and other sinners were eating with Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law complained to Jesus’ disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with sinners? …. (later) They said directly to Jesus, “John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking” … Now Jesus answers their griping saying, “The sick need a doctor! I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” and then Jesus speaks of joy’s role in faith. However, the Great Physician does not just treat the spiritualized surface symptoms; Jesus addresses the deeper spiritual condition: “No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’
As we face changes from receiving a new pastor to addressing deeper cultural shifts, do we trust God enough to lead us into change? Can we drink the New Wine? Will we believe the Good News, that “Christ is Risen, and going ahead of us… and there we will see him”?
Life requires change. Trees bud, flower, seed, germinate, grow, bud… Children cry, nurse, roll, burp, babble, eat, toddle, talk, walk, run, read, sing, dance, cook, calculate, move, graduate, lead, nurture… The question is not “will things change?” but “how will we respond to change?” Jesus’ creative work within us always changes us until “everything becomes new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17) Indeed, Jesus tells us that we must change “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)
Jesus is going ahead- leading us forward – will we follow? Matthew’s Gospel concludes with Jesus imploring us to get going! “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to keep my teachings, and know, I am with you always.” How well did the disciple do? Did they get going straight away? Will the first disciples reach out to the nations?
In Acts 1, the disciples will select a new replacement disciple by lots. In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit will blow them out of their prayer meeting room into the street where “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs” will be astounded and 5,000 will be baptized. In Acts 3, Peter will heal the sick. In Acts 4, Peter and John will be arrested for the faith. In Acts 5, people will sell off lands and hold things in common. In Acts 6, they will set up a food bank. In Acts 7, Stephen, the head of the food bank, will be martyred for the faith. So seven chapters into the Acts of the Apostles, the church hasn’t yet left Jerusalem. In seven chapters, Jesus’ commission to “Not be afraid, but Go and tell… Go and make disciples of all nations” has not pushed the church across a single cultural boundary.
Chapter 8 arrives: “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. Those who had been scattered preached the Word wherever they went.”
It is strange, that Jesus’ Commission and Pentecost’s Winds, did not launch the church beyond its’ comfort zone. No, the church stayed put. The church stayed comfortable resting in Jesus. It would take an unwelcome event, an uncomfortable cultural intrusion to blow the church into Jesus’ multicultural mission of “going to all nations”. Persecution, not Jesus’ command or Pentecost’s power moved us beyond our firm foundations!
What kind of world would these culturally-Jewish church folks discover? What changes lay in store? Let’s hear! “Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city. Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low,…followed Simon because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery. But when they believed…the Good News of the Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ, they were baptized, (leaving Simon and paganism behind).” There was great joy in that city!
This is a huge cultural change! This Samarian culture was different. Open sorcery was not tolerated in Jerusalem in keeping with the Levitical Law. (Deuteronomy 18:9) However, in ten chapters, when Paul plants a church among the Ephesians in Acts 19, those leaving paganism will bring in their magic books, so renouncing their past lives they will burn their magic books valued at over a million dollars. (All types of scrolls generally were written by the best educated scribes and written on leather). These simply were not the kinds of people that Peter, James, John, Martha, and Mary were used to sharing pot-luck dinners with! The church pillars likely stammered and stumbled when thinking about their children marrying a former sorcerer’s child!
What did it mean to face a pre-Christian culture? What does it mean for us as we face a post-Christendom culture? Do we believe Jesus still goes before us? Will we engage a post-church culture knowing that “Christ is Risen from the dead and is going ahead of us”? Do we believe Jesus is faithful until the end, invested with all authority in heaven and on earth and sending us to go to all nations, or will we retreat to Jerusalem and wait for God to do something? Will we hunker down behind stained glass windows, sit in comfortable chairs, consume good music, and drink good coffee, or will we walk out into a very different culture? Do we understand that Jesus still loves the Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia?
What changes will God bring to the church? What changes will Parthians, Medes and Elamites bring to the church? Will there be church barbeques? Will Gentiles translate the very words of Jesus Christ into strange extra-Biblical languages like English? Will the Gentile church celebrate the Day of Atonement? Will Gentile converts undergo circumcision? Is Jesus bigger than one culture? Does Jesus demand a fixed cultural template or is Christianity somewhat culturally pliable? Does Jesus supersede any culture? What will it mean to be a Christian after Gentiles, “a wild olive shoot,” are grafted into the rich Jewish tradition? (Romans 11:17) Will the Gentiles change how the church understands it’s faith? Could God change “us” as we encounter “them”? A sermon of questions may not satisfy anyone, but easy answers usually do not endure!
Hear the Good News, delight in the Easter message: “Jesus is going ahead of us!” Let us remember the lessons of Act’s 8 that God longs to redeem unpleasant times, unwelcomed changes, and unexpected moves. God’s grace comes even amid terrible persecution. Christianity flourished without kosher pot-lucks or head-coverings! Let us remember that spirit-filled, Biblically-aligned faith moves outward, loving our neighbors as ourselves! Let us remember, “There was great joy in that city,” as people broke free from an oppressive, manipulative, and false belief system. May the Good News move us along, as Jesus goes before us to the end of the age! Do not be afraid, Christ is risen and is already way ahead of us. Amen