The Dreaded ‘e’ word
05.21.2017 Preaching Text: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” (Acts 17:22)
During our adult book study the other night we got on the subject of children. We noted how much they bring to the table. And by that I mean to the church.
They bring their trust, faith, innocence, curiosity, openness, eagerness to learn, and ability to put a fresh spin on things we adults often take for granted. The phrase “out of the mouths of babes” comes to mind.
With that said, I’d like to ask you a question which, on the surface, may seem obvious but in reality is a tough and probing question, a question about which a child might be downright curious.
To wit: does it matter if you’re a Christian or not? After all, if recent polls are to be believed, a full 25% of Americans not only don’t consider themselves Christians but don’t even believe in God.
And if being a Christian does matter, in what way is this so? Can’t a person live a good life without going to church? I’ve certainly heard that innumerable times over the years. You probably have too.
Is Christianity a necessary part of life or is attending church something that is optional, something maybe good or nice, but not necessarily integral to one’s well-being?
I’ve discussed how Judaism and early Christianity understood the Sabbath to be highlight of the week, such that the first 3 days after the Sabbath were to be spent remembering and meditating on the Sabbath just past, while the 3 days prior to the next Sabbath were to be spent in anticipation and preparation.
In our busy Western workaday world, it’s as if Monday through Friday constitutes the main event, while the weekend is for resting up in preparation for the workweek to come.
As was said, the earlier concept was that the Sabbath is the center of one’s week, indeed one’s life, and that the rest of the week properly revolves around it.
In some ways, our modern take on things is that the Sabbath is optional, or, as one of my favorite professors in divinity school put it, “the icing on the cake” of our week (not the main event, in other words), or, as I’ve heard umpteen times, an opportunity to “recharge our batteries” in anticipation of the “real world” of Monday through Friday.
In the readings today from Acts and 1 Peter, however, the idea is that a Christ-centered life is not just a good thing to pursue but is at the core of who we are!
With this in mind, in the early 90s, the Massachusetts Conference embarked on a campaign. They blanketed the churches with material on this initiative. It was about evangelism. And as such, the campaign was entitled, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, “The ‘e’ Word.”
The joke is that we mainline Protestants tend to be averse to the idea of evangelism. It conjures up all sorts of unpleasant images, images of self-righteous judgmental church people haranguing and condemning others.
Even at its best, evangelism strikes us New Englanders as impolite, disrespectful. After all, religion is a private matter and certainly not something to be discussed unbidden. It’s simply bad form to even faintly imply that we might know something someone else doesn’t.
But what then do we do with our readings from this morning? And what about the early church’s keen interest in converting people? Has this need all but passed? Is Christianity even necessary today?
In Acts, we encounter the newly converted Paul speaking to the educated citizens of Athens at the Areopagus. Today this might be akin to speaking in Harvard Square or in Sproul Plaza at Berkeley, though the Athenians of the day appear to have had a genuine regard for open and free discourse (unlike what we see on some of our college campuses today).
In any event, Paul, in visiting this cosmopolitan city, observes all sorts of pagan statues and shrines, and is clearly troubled by them. He debates with a few of the Epicurean and Stoic intellectuals of the city. Some are intrigued; others dismissive.
Eventually he is invited to speak on Areopagus, a hill site where people would gather for lively and learned debate. As it was, Athenians were known for their “open-minded” interest in new and differing views, and loved to hear about the latest trends and ideas.
There Paul employs his intellectual prowess and debating skills shrewdly. Rather than pointing a condemnatory finger at them, he artfully extols them, suggesting that they indeed appear to be quite the religious people. And then, likewise artfully, he offers to define the “unknown God” he knows they deep down truly desire. In other words, he advances the singular idea of Jesus Christ!
Back when I was in divinity school, I took a class on missiology (the study of mission work). I was told that proper missionary work today does not include discussing Christ, but focuses mostly on offering those in need medical care, food, shelter, and education. In theory, the subject of Christian faith might never come up!
This is, in large part, a reaction to the perceived cultural imperialism of the church’s mission work in the past. According to the theory, missionaries had been too heavy-handed and tended to present the gospel and Western culture as a seamless whole, to the point of being dismissive if not wholly ignorant of the indigenous culture.
On the plus side, this modern approach has the merit of making good on St. Francis wise counsel to his disciples as they prepared to evangelize in the public squares near Assisi. “Preach always,” he advised, “If necessary use words.”
The modern idea is that the church’s charitable works speak for themselves, and send a startling message – that Christianity is passionately interested in the welfare of others and that Christians pursue this desire to help selflessly. This is indeed a powerful message. And no doubt this would incline someone to want to know more about what motivates such Christians.
But, again, what about Paul? Should he have performed good works instead of preaching Christ? (Interestingly, the churches showing the greatest increases in membership worldwide are the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, both of which unabashedly talk about Jesus!)
In our book discussion we also talked a bit about evangelism and its many challenges. Some of us agreed that perhaps the best way to evangelize is through personal testimony, such as is found in our Psalm reading this morning.
Personal testimony, after all, can be a very effective method of touching other people’s lives, in part because all we’re doing is offering our own experiences, without judgment. Besides, no one can tell you your experience of Christ is wrong. How would they know?
And yet I still feel the need to leave you with a few tough questions, questions a child might ask, questions I’d like you to think about during the coming week:
Is it appropriate for us to evangelize? And if so, how? Should the content of our Christian faith even matter in our efforts? Should we ever challenge the beliefs of others? Does Christianity offer anything other religions and other “lifestyles” don’t? And, perhaps most importantly, is it rude, impolite, or arrogant to ever suggest as much? Amen.