On being sure we are not the problem…

Posted by on Oct 18, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

I spoke at the Baptist Union of Western Australia’s Annual Assembly yesterday, and thought you might be interested to read the text of my address. You’ll notice that I picked up on a few of the themes we have looked at on the blog in recent weeks.

We had a computer virus hit our network at Vose this week. As we called the staff together to look at what had happened and to outline the plan to get it sorted, the natural question that was asked was, ‘So how did this happen?’ As the IT guru outlined it for us, and explained how someone had unwittingly opened an attachment that had been quarantined, you could see each staff member go through a little mental exercise of ‘oh dear – was it me?’ There is something deep inside of us that wants to be sure that we are not the problem…

In 1 Cor 1:23 Paul says we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. Indeed, the Cross is a stumbling block to belief for it gets to the heart of human sin – our insistence that we can save ourselves and that God is unnecessary. Trouble is, when most people say why they are not Christians, the reason they give is not usually the cross. I haven’t heard someone mutter, ‘just can’t bear that Jesus died for me’. Instead, it is more common to hear people rattle off a whole heap of accusations against the church and against Christians, accusations that have nothing to do with the cross.

It is at this point that we have to pause and ask the awkward question: ‘Oh dear. Am I the problem?’ And that is what I would like us to ask at this Baptist Union Assembly – could it be that we are sometimes the problem, the reason that people say no to Jesus.

Let’s listen to the two most common accusations levelled against Christianity by the New Atheists:

  • The first is that Christianity is intellectually vacuous (which is an old accusation)
  • The second is that Christianity is morally suspect (a relatively new charge)

Think about the second – that Christianity is morally suspect – that’s outrageously unfair. We have forgotten how much good Christianity has done in the world – and we need to refresh our memory.

Take a single example… Christians believe that every person matters because every person has been made in the image of God. “Sure,” you say, “but since when has theology ever made any difference?”

Actually, always.

You see it in the way this conviction changed the Roman world almost immediately the church came to power…

  • Charity was birthed: We so take the parable of the Good Samaritan for granted that we have forgotten that its teaching was not self evident in its time, and even less so in the broader context of the Greco-Roman world that dominated the landscape of Jesus’ world. The early Christians practiced caritas – giving to relieve the plight of another without any expectation of the gift being returned. By contrast, the Romans practiced liberalitas – gift giving to the priviledged to please them, in the hope that they would later bestow a favour on the giver.  There was no instinctive drive to help the needy. Plato (427-347BCE) advised that a poor man no longer able to work should be left to die. Roman philosopher Plautus (254-184BCE) wrote: ‘You do a beggar bad service by giving him food and drink; you lose what you give and prolong his life for more misery.’ (Trinummus 2:338-39). Schmidt in his book Under the Influence writes, ‘When modern secularists show compassion today upon seeing or hearing of some human tragedy… they show that they have unknowingly internalized Christianity’s concept of compassion…[if they had not] grown up under the two-thousand-year-old umbrella of Christianity’s compassionate influence, they would probably be without much compassion, similar to the ancient Greeks, Romans, and others.’ (p131) Why were the early Christians compassionate? Because they knew that every human being had been made in the image of God.
  • The emperor was held to account: In 390 a charioteer in Thessalonica was accused of homosexual behaviour. The governor of the district had him imprisoned, but the people of the area, who enjoyed his charioteering skills, demanded his release. The governor refused, leading to an uprising in which the governor was killed and the arrested man released. Incensed on hearing this, Emperor Theodosius, who had been instrumental in having Christianity decreed as the official religion of the Roman Empire, ordered that the residents of the area be punished. At a chariot race in Thessalonica Theodosius’s soldiers trapped those attending inside, and within three hours had slaughtered around 7000 people.

Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, was appalled at this indiscriminate slaughter, and in the name of the church called on Theodosius to repent. Initially Theodosius refused, and consequently Ambrose would not give him communion. Theodosius stayed away from church for a while, but his commitment to the faith made this situation untenable. He reluctantly accepted Ambrose’s terms for reconciliation, which included the promotion of a law which required a delay of 30 days before any death sentence passed would be enforced. In front of a crowded congregation Theodosius took off his imperial robes and asked for forgiveness of his sins. Ambrose initially declined to offer this, but after Theodosius had repeatedly requested it, at a church service on Christmas day Ambrose gave Theodosius the sacrament.

Shelley comments on the significance of this, ‘It required unusual courage to humiliate a Byzantine emperor. Ambrose had hit upon the weapon – the threat of excommunication – which the Western church would soon use again and again to humble princes.’(p98) The emperor could frighten people into obedience with the sword, but the church could determine their eternal destiny. This made the church more powerful than the emperor.

Reflect upon the courage it took for Ambrose to confront a Roman Emperor and to excommunicate him – especially as this was the emperor who had declared Christianity the official religion of his empire. Theodosius might have been sympathetic to the work of the church, but it was improbable that he would be so sympathetic that he would carry that meekly. Ambrose’s action was undoubtedly brave – but was it not also reckless, perhaps even irresponsible? He could have catapulted the church back into an era of persecution and oppression. You simply did not confront a Roman Emperor and live.

So why was Ambrose so outraged? After all, this was not 2015. Injustice was widespread. Life was cheap, and tragedy common.

But Ambrose knew that 7000 people had been slaughtered indiscriminately. While Ambrose did not know each person killed, he knew that each was known to God. And he knew that every person is precious to God and made in God’s own image. And he knew that if this now supposedly Christian empire was to stand for anything, it needed a higher standard of justice and compassion than this. He knew that no one could be above the law, because no one is above God – not even the emperor. In short, his Christian convictions compelled him to act, regardless of the risk.

Schmidt in his book Under the Influence validly writes: ‘People who today see murder and mass atrocities as immoral may not realize that their beliefs in this regard are largely the result of their having internalized the Christian ethic that holds human life to be sacred.’ (p74)

And I could continue to relate stories thick and fast. When Christianity gained influence, it very quickly made a radical difference. When people are outraged at injustice, oppression and violence, gently remind them that their outrage comes because they have been steeped in Christian assumptions. Before the Christian era, no one batted an eyelid at abuses of power. Might was right, power holders were seen to account only to themselves.

“All’s good then,” you say. “Our story holds up. It is silly to suggest that Christianity is morally suspect.”

But actually when I speak to my new atheist friends they simply smile knowingly and say… “OK – you win on that… but the reason we’ll keep saying you are morally suspect is that while you made a contribution in the past, you have outlived your use by date. You are now simply a brake on human progress. You were once a good news story, but now you are a bad news story.”

My uncomfortable question for us as a denomination: We have been a good news story. Will we still be a good news story into the future?

My answer to that is YES – but it is a qualified yes. YES IF…

    • We rediscover the church as a place of genuine spirituality: One of the most alarming challenges facing the church is that when people hear the word “church” they don’t think “God” or “Jesus” – but instead think about sexual abuse, mismanagement of funds, power games and fighting over trivia. We need to be who we are called to be, so that when people experience the God shaped vacuum Augustine rightly identified as existing in each of us, they immediately think, “Church is where I will encounter God and find answers.” Be honest. Review your average church week. How much of it is about “Church Inc.” and how much is about God. For many of us, those proportions need to be reversed. Church needs to be a place for those who are hungry for God.
    • Church is a place of deep relationships: This is probably more critical than at any other time in history. Within a generation we have seen a fairly widespread disintegration of both family and community. People are adrift. A biblical image of church is that it is a family. When the early church thought family it did not think nuclear family, but extended family – a place where everyone can belong.
    • When authentic compassion is obvious: This must be compassion without strings attached. It is about journeying with people towards wholeness, accepting that such journeys are often long, complicated and filled with setbacks. It is about caring enough to risk on behalf of others.

Back to our opening question. Could it be that we are sometime the problem – the reason that people sometimes suspect that Christianity is morally dubious. When we are the problem, people never get as far as seeing the Cross of Jesus. They see the scandal, or the shallowness of pretend relationships or the hardness of heart… and they go no further. They have stumbled, but it has not been the Cross that has caused it…

But if we can be who God calls us to be, the glory of the Cross can come into sharp focus. While some will stumble and say no – many, many more will say yes…

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