Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
June 17, 2018
Text: Rom. 15:5-6, Old Testament: Psalm 100, New Testament: Rom. 15:1-13
We live during the Balkanization of Western Civilization. By Balkanization, I mean the political break-up of Western community around tribal interests that pit a group of people against another in a power struggle. The term originally described the break-up of Yugoslavia after Communism’s fall.
Yugoslavia had been one nation where various religions and nations had been united by government. The Balkan peninsula became competing states after Communism. These states thrived on remembering historic conflicts with each other. They were not interested in working together for a common good. They went to war based on the memory of centuries of ethnic and religious atrocities.
Western Civilization is undergoing a similar trend. It is not happening as quickly as the break-up of the Balkans. But the break-up is relentless and progressing, to the loss of Western unity.
Christendom, the great vision of global reconciliation and peace under the sovereignty of Jesus Christ is being disowned socially, and politically across the West. The Christian worldview’s disestablishment gained momentum during the French and Marxist Revolutions. Anti-establishment ideologies advanced during the nineteenth century became political and educational theories that are now socially accepted and commonly held by leaders in government, education, business, and science. The common Westerner has been trained to think and react to life from its liberation from Christianity.
We Presbyterians have been near the forefront of this revolution.
The United Presbyterian Church descended from Scottish Presbyterians who believed in a national covenant that united Scotland. The National Covenant was a holy quest to unite Church and state under Christ’s authority.
Northern Ireland’s Presbyterians in the Ulster Plantation believed in the covenanting Presbyterians in Edinburgh and St. Andrews. But they were a minority in Ireland who were suffering persecution for their Protestant faith. They sought religious freedom to express their faith. Freedom of conscience emerged as the Presbyterian contribution to Christianity and Western Society. Presbyterians reserved the right to dissent over Church and state authority.
Presbyterians declared civil government had no authority over the Church, its’ beliefs, its disciplines, its worship or preservation of the Gospel. Only Jesus Christ is Lord over the Church. The Church and the state are subject to Christ’s authority. The state defends the Church from internal and external threats. The state guards social conduct that is subject to God’s law in Scripture. The state protects each Christians’ right to practice faith without punishment or prejudice.
That world no longer exists. A new culture without Christian principles governs us. It has influenced social beliefs and behaviors. We call it humanism, or secularism. Its labeled the democratic ideal and was once known as modern liberalism. Its intellectual roots lie in the world of Classical Antiquity, in pre-Christian Greek and Roman philosophical thought.
This Classical worldview is not the Christian ideal. The early Church resisted it vigorously. The current Church embraces it at the expense of its faith in Jesus Christ, and its belief that Jesus Christ is Lord.
What has happened to our congregation and every congregation across America is the result of Christian confusion, Christian criticism, and Christian reluctance to learn the lessons of discipleship from Jesus Christ. His teachings distinguished Christians from pagans. The West practices the philosophical worldview of Classical Greece and Rome. It has divided Christians in general, and Presbyterians in specific. We are watching the deconstruction of Christianity and don’t agree how to resist it.
The Church’s disciple-making mission is broken into warring camps between social justice advocates and spiritual pietists. They have fought one another to a standstill while secular educational theory as advanced beyond their bickering. Continuing acrimony inside the Church has been at the expense of its public respect. That acrimony is, at its root, the symptom of the Church’s loss of Christ’s distinctiveness in spiritual, moral, and social thought.
Christians are tempted by their state-funded education to interpret the Bible from the state’s perspective. We are subject to philosophical principles of Classical Greece and Rome which the Church originally condemned as unjust.
The culture in which the Apostle John wrote his Gospel was dominated by ancient Greece and Rome’s polytheistic confusion. It was a world where justice was defined by the tyrant in power who had no respect for the common life of people or the gods. Athens’ leaders encouraged slavery and received public funds from legalizing what the Church called sin to build the Acropolis and Parthenon.
Over half of the Roman and Greek empires were slaves. People were subjected to taxation without representation to fund the private coffers of senators, publicans, and emperors. War was perpetually waged to expand empire and economic trade.
The so called democratic republic was fraught with anxiety and powerlessness for the common person. The system was corrupted by greed and jealousy. Rome’s Republic transferred leadership through political assassinations.
Women were not respected, nor were children. They were bought and sold as sexual commodities. If they resisted because of their Christian integrity and spirituality, they were dismissed, ridiculed, and murdered.
Death ruled the Roman empire. Infants, children, and youth were socially expendable. The financial costs to care for them reduced the freedom of parents to indulge themselves. Greece and Rome culturally died when the wealth collected by the aristocracy of both empires corrupted family life.
This is the cultural trajectory on which Western Civilization has been travelling since the nineteenth century. We face this culture today in Christian mission. Yet we are unable to see it as clearly as the early Church did in its disciple-making mission.
Intellectuals call it post-Christian, post-Christendom, or post-modernism. They’re describing a world in which Christ’s teachings are no longer valued for public life. The last time the Church lived a world like this was almost 2,000 years ago. Our technological and scientific advances have not advanced the sacredness of human spirituality. Human reconciliation Christ’s teachings offer is degenerating into political and social conflict unprecedented in our memory.
We are facing more than a Marxist class struggle. But that too is happening, between the West’s aristocracy and the poor and middle class. Racism and sexism divide our society. Children are collateral damage to the social conflicts that are demonizing political opposition. Immigrants keep their cultural and religious distinctiveness as isolated communities competing with residents.
Rome and Greece failed to preserve their communities. Their philosophies failed them. The Church provided Christ’s alternative that united people of various nations, religions, cultures, languages in one community. This happened through Christian disciple-making.
Last week we introduced the Church’s mentoring process for new members. It was called The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, or The Didache. The Didache was written when the Church shared one voice. Its results glorified God.
The Church’s one voice from the Apostles challenged Greco- Roman culture. The power in its truth was compelling. It attracted converts from all nations and economic conditions to Christianity. It appealed to the poor, slaves, women, and children who were willing to live by its wisdom.
The Didache began with a simple conviction the Apostles learned from Jesus. There is the Way of Life and the Way of Death. The Way of Life was shown by God through Jesus Christ. Christ came to give life and live it abundantly.
The God of Jesus is the God of the living, not the dead.
The Way of Death is obvious in slavery, rampant injustice, government corruption that ruled by fear, failed deities who were as corrupt as government.
This simple distinction between the Way of Life and the Way of Death in the Didache clarified what was at stake in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ community gives life. It is based on loving God, loving your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you don’t want done to you.
The Way of Life blesses those who curse you, it abstains from worldly lusts. Give to everyone who asks something from you and do not ask for it back.
The Didache taught about “Grave Sin.” Murder, adultery, pederasty, rape, fornication, theft, magic, witchcraft and infanticide were prohibited. Don’t covet what your neighbor has, speak only the truth, and show what is truthful by performing it yourself. Hate no one and pray for your neighbor.
Don’t seek omens or astrology, for from these things idolatry is created.
You may consider each of these to be common sense. They aren’t, or we wouldn’t be having the social problems today that are afflicting our children, youth, and adults.
The Didache made clear what is hidden by Christian disciple-making in most congregations today. It defined culture and human living in terms that were graphically clear. Most of what is commonly practiced by humans is the Way of Death. Only a few seek the Way of Life.
For three years the Apostles mentored potential Christians before talking specifically with them about Jesus Christ. They did not assume anything about whether a friend or neighbor was committed to living like Jesus. They developed relationships with their neighbors and acquaintances before they began mentoring to see the potential for accepting Christian life.
The early Church assumed there needed to be a transformation in the way a person would think and live to embrace how Jesus taught His disciples to think and live. They took seriously their responsibility to make disciples because they expected Christ to return soon. His judgment would be upon the disciples and the world if they had not fulfilled His mission.
Today’s Christians lack the immediacy of Christ’s return motivating them to make disciples. Today’s Christians lack the perseverance that is necessary to mentor a person to believe in and live like Jesus. Today’s Christians make so many compromises and find so many distractions from making disciple-making the mission of the Church that they are content with their current efforts.
The glorification of God comes when we show in our laser focus on disciple-making that we are committed to fulfilling Jesus Christ’s mission. Jesus talks about God’s glory in the way the Church accepts being sent into the world to make disciples in John 17. The Holy Spirit blesses the efforts of those who step beyond the security of the congregation to engage the outer world with the story of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Despite public opinion that was against Christians, the Church grew in ancient Greece and Rome. Despite public policy and civil law that prohibited the speaking of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, Athens, or Rome, the Church grew.
The Church grows to the glory of God when Jesus’ disciples fulfill what Jesus called them to do – make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!
Let us glorify God at Bellevue United Presbyterian Church! Amen.