This weekend, Greg gives two sermons in one.
Sermon one: In the book “the rise of Christianity,” author Rodney Stark asks the question: “How did Christians go from being a small, persecuted sect to being the majority religion in Roman Empire?” Though he is a secular historian, this book got many things right. Part of the answer is that they believed that they were called to imitate Jesus and suffer for others. Their life was spent demonstrating their faith to the community around them. They believe they wouldn’t really “truly” die, so they were outrageously generous. This caused others to convert, because they won the hearts of many.
This was especially true when a disaster or a plague would hit. Back then during a plague 30-40% of the community would die, because they had inadequate medical care. It’s said that 80% of deaths of things like the flu even nowadays are not from the disease itself, but from a lack of care. If they had their basic needs met, they could have survived. (This is part of why diseases affect the poor so disproportionately.) So during a plague, everyone would leave town, but the Christians would stay and care for the sick.
The reason Greg brings this up this week is because right now, the Coronavirus is starting to spread around the world. It has the potential to be nasty, because 80% of the people that are infected have no symptoms, so they spread it without realizing it. And unfortunately, when things get nasty, people get nasty.
Fear causes us to become xenophobic, it enhances our fear of the other. We go into self preservation mode, focusing on “me and mine first.” And when this happens, the ugliness often comes to the surface. It causes people to scapegoat and blame. People are intrinsically tribal, but this gets a shot of steroids during hard times. Ugliness happens when people are afraid.
This is why it’s imperative for us as Christians for our response to be not one of fear.
Like the various flus before it, this virus could be big, or it could be nothing, but however it goes, we Christians must avoid the hysteria. We must live as though suffering of this age does not even compare to the glory that awaits us.
When it is dark, that is our opportunity to shine the most. The light goes on when we ask: How do we sacrifice for others?
Whereas fear naturally causes us to have xenophobia, the kingdom moves in the exact opposite direction. The kingdom moves in the direction of xenoPHILIA, the love of the other. To imitate this is our calling. We must live in love as Christ loved you and gave his life for you.
Of course you need to take care of you and yours, but in the kingdom there is always space for the other. So if you know of someone that is having problems whether its with the flu or something else, go and check on them. Follow the spirit in how you might help others.
Greg told a story of a couple of years ago, there was a flu going around in MN and someone at our church had a neighbor whose elderly mother was sick. The woman could not leave her kids, however, so her neighbor offered to take the mother to hospital and sit with her. Well she too ended up getting the flu, but the fact that she made that sacrifice forged a bond between the two women that could not have happened otherwise. Even if you lose, you still win. Now obviously don’t make it your goal to go out and get sick, but the risk is what matters. We must risk for others.
If due to this virus, people stop attending church, the offerings always go down, which would be fine if needs also went down, but they don’t! Needs in the community always go UP at times like these! So keep your heart open to the kingdom, ask the spirit to lead you in how you might serve and respond. And above all, don’t follow the xenophobic hysteria.
Sermon number two: This week we are starting a new series called Unraveling the Truth: Living In An Age of Uncertainty.
Sometimes when Greg sees someone that he thinks has potential, he takes them under his wing and mentors them. There was one such person a few years ago. He saw such potential in him, and spent two years mentoring him. A few months went by and he did not hear from him and did not think anything of it, but suddenly he heard that this person had decided to give up on his faith entirely!
Greg tried to get in touch with the person, but he did not want to talk to Greg about it because he thought, “Greg would just talk me out of it.” Which means he wasn’t 100% secure in his unbelief and maybe *should* be talked out of it! Greg said as much and the person responded that there are lots of other smart people who feel the opposite way and are just as persuasive as you. So how do I know who is right? Who can know what is true? It’s all subjective.
This idea that no one can know the truth has been going on for a long time and it is called Relativism, the idea that there IS no ultimate right or wrong, morality is relative, it’s only right or wrong to *us*.
The problem with this idea is that if morality is all relative, then owning slaves or attending fights to the death or the Nazis killing Jews or any other culturally normalized behavior would all be perfectly okay.
Jesus ran into this same thing when he was on trial. We see in John 18:36-40,
‘Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
“What is truth?” retorted Pilate.’
Pilate asks him, “What is truth?” and then proceeds to just let the crowd decide who to release. Because the answer to the question “what is truth” is always “whatever I want it to be.”
This matters now more than ever because in our pluralistic society, ambiguity is causing a lot of people to leave the faith. Evangelical writer Tony Campolo’s son Bart Campolo swore off the faith, and now goes around giving seminars on humanism. The musician Derek Webb is another so-called “post-Christian,” along with author Josh Harris and songwriter Marty Sampson.
The thing is that with most of these people, it’s never one specific claim they have a problem with. It is always wishy washy, like it’s not relevant, or it does not feel true, or it’s too narrow. It often comes down to them saying that they think morality and truth are relative.
Greg shares two responses to this:
First, usually, the kind of Christianity that they are rejecting is the kind we would reject too. Very often, they are rejecting the same old arguments of narrow fundamentalist Christianity, such as if you don’t believe in Jesus you are going to hell — even if you just happened to be born in a time/place like 17th century Iraq where there is no knowledge of Jesus (and yet somehow they still say God loves you and displays perfect love).
But it is totally possible (and right) to believe in Jesus while also rejecting self-righteous kinds of Christianity. That kind of narrowness frankly does not sit well with anyone anymore, so relatively few people still hold to that.
Narrow Christianity and American fundamentalism does not at all characterize the Christianity of the early church. They never believed non-Christians were going to hell. That belief did not come about until St. Augustine in the 5th century, when people started holding this negative view of humanity, where people were bad and sinful and going to hell unless they agree with your faith in Jesus. That was not the view we see in the New Testament. Early Christians believed that Jesus saved, but God judges on basis of your heart. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul says if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come — Paul has the opposite mindset from this. It is an optimistic way of looking at people and the world.
The intolerant Christianity that these non-believers reject is what we would reject too. But Christianity is broad and wide, and not all churches believe that old, narrow view. Don’t throw out the baby with bathwater!
Greg’s second point is that Jesus said he came to bear witness to truth, and he is the incarnation of truth. But truth is only true when it’s LIVED. This is not an intellectual belief that is simply perceived (or lost) with your brain, but it is a way of life, it is a lived reality. And just like we discussed earlier in this sermon, the reason early Christianity took hold in people’s hearts and spread to others is because people would come to know truth by seeing it embodied in God’s people.
1 John 4:12
No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
The phrase “made complete”, also translated as perfected, means to be brought to fruition in us, in how we live. It must be lived! When it is not lived, people lose sense of what is true, not only within themselves, but it also fails to spark belief in those around them. This is why Jesus claimed to be the embodiment of truth, he said I AM the truth, and we are told to abide in the truth, to live in it.
We are wired to know truth by recognizing it. We see it, we experience it. The place where the world can see the kingdom is IN US. This is why John says in John 13:35, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Our response to relativism must be Live Faith. Live like it really is true that Jesus was real and lived and died for you; Live as though it is true (because it is) that the suffering of present age can’t be compared to glory of the kingdom of God.
The beauty of the kingdom is its whole selling point, and it is how we solidify our own belief and spread it to others.
And this becomes most important than ever during times of hardship as discussed in the first part of today’s message, because the darker it gets, the more opportunity we have to shine!!
In a state of confusion, with conflicting truth claims, divergent views of events and conflicting news reports about events, in the midst of whirlwind hysteria, and post-christianity, the answer to all of it is to Live It. Live the Truth. The truth is love; the truth is peace. Live as though your highest ambition is to bleed for others, because it is!
Hide Extended Summary