Third Sunday after Epiphany – Year B
Sunday, January 22, 2012
Let us pray: Encouraging, inspiring, dynamic God: take these words and use them. Amen.
Maybe that phrase “post-Christendom” is new to you. It was new to me about ten or a dozen years ago, although the era it describes is likely a few years older than that. In some Christian circles the phrase would likely be considered “fighting words” while for others the term would simply be a statement of reality. If you are not familiar with the phrase, it is a way of describing the spiritual zeitgeist. Christendom was a time when Christianity, especially in Europe and North America, was the dominant religion. So, post-Christendom suggests that that time is over. I think you can understand why some people would thus consider the phrase to be “fighting words” for it would be their intention to re-establish Christianity once more as the dominant religion. For others, and I think most people in The United Church of Canada would place themselves in this group, it is simply a reflection on the current state of things both religious and spiritual.
There is a joke I've heard on a number of occasions which exemplifies this change. I found it online in The Encyclopedia of Humour edited by Lowell Streiker. That name is familiar to me. Back in the early days of my first PC Computer I had a little program (we would call it an app in this day and age) which would pop up a daily joke or funny story from church life. Like much humour there is a good deal of truth behind the humour – you know in the sense that some of the truest things are said in jest. Anyway, the joke goes like this:
My friend, Pastor Crawford Flanders, tells me that during thefirst five years of his ministry, he had a sign on his desk reading, "Win the world for Christ."The next five years the sign read, "Win five for Christ."After ten years, he changed the sign to read, "Don't lose too many."
The joke sounds like a commentary on the evangelical abilities of Crawford Flanders, but in fact, I think the joke is instead a commentary on how the times they are a changing. Even in my lifetime I can remember when one of the goals of the Christian faith was summed up by the great commission, That term comes from Matthew's gospel chapter 28. In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible it reads this way:
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
I don't know how many of us in the multi-faith environment in which we live would still see this commission to make disciples of alll nations as possible or even desirable. So it's not Pastor Flanders lack of ability that has influenced the changing mission objective reflected in the sign on his desk, but a changing attitude as to just what we are to be about as modern day Christians. Do we really think that our purpose as Christians is to convince, cajole or convert everyone to Christianity, or is it something else?
That question then, begs another one. If the answer to that question is “no” then what does it mean to be called? To some people, being called could mean to be counted among the believers, but to many others it means being set apart from among the believers to some kind of different purpose, to some kind of goal or objective that would further or make better known God's purpose or presence in the world. An old way of imagining that purpose would be to describe it in the same way that Crawford Flanders understood it – to win the world for Christ. What would the new way of imagining it be? What, as the title of this reflection suggests, would it mean to be called: post-christendom style?
I actually think there is a lot of connection between post-Christendom calling and pre-Christendom calling. We have to remember that when Simon and Andrew and James and John were called by Jesus, it was done pre-Christendom. Jesus was a Jew and he was calling disciples to help him share the good news of God's presence among their fellow followers of the Jewish faith. It was not about a new religion it was about an unveiling of God's presence, God's way in new and inclusive ways. Jesus was an iconoclast when it came to understanding the ways in which God was known and understood. He recognized great faith in those who occupied the margins of society. He exposed the needless legalism and unhealthy practices and traditions that characterized the organized religion of the day – but not just for his time, but for all time.
Just as Jesus was not recruiting new Christians when he called the disciples, I believe that being called post-Christendom syle is not about recruiting new Christians. I used the words convince, cajole, and convert a few moments ago as a way of describing what being called is “not”. I did not use another “c” word, the word “compell”. I use it now cautiously because I don't think our objective as followers of the way of Jesus is to compell others to be followers too. I do believe however that the way of Jesus is a compelling way. It's a way that shapes and influences my life and I believe that I was called to share the story of Jesus and most particularly the iconoclastic way that characterized the work and words of Jesus.
So unlike Pastor Flanders (and isn't that the name of the minister on the Simpsons) I would not consider losing too many as a sad commentary on my ability as a called minister, nor would I consider it too much of a happy success to say I had won many or even a few. First of all what would it mean to “win” or “lose”. It conjures up a conflict to which I would not want to ascribe. This is not about winning or losing, it is about offering to people a perspective on life that turns expectations upside down, invites thinking that is completely and almost always outside of the box, puts in place an economy, a way of valuing that is completely different from anything that we would consider normal or usual. That's God's economy, an economy that has love, compassion, co-operation, community as the standard for valuing what is important.
If there are people of faith outside the Christian way, followers of another religion that demonstrate those same values, then it is my purpose to support them. God's way is always God's way - not God's way as described, defined or defended by a particular religion, including Christianity.
I really believe that when Jesus called the disciples, he was inviting them to live more fully, more conscientiously as God's people. In other words, being called post-Christendom, just like being called pre-Christendom is not about making new Christians, but about being intentional in living more fully and more wholly in God's way. Amen.