Ever since seminary, I’ve been fascinated with the history of the Christian Church.
What a story! This is a faith centered around an obscure poor hick from the hinterlands of the Empire who never spoke in ways folks could understand and then died, abandoned, in the most shameful of ways – on a cross. There was nothing written about him and his movement during his lifetime, and afterwards it was pretty much just what was created by the communities who followed his believed resurrected presence.
However, Christianity is now the largest and arguably most influential religion in the world, with 2.2 billion adherents (as of 2012). 31.5% of the world’s population. Islam is second, with only about 2/3 of these gargantuan totals.
How can that be?
If I were going to create a miniseries on the subject (and I know, I probably should), I’d have to start with that scene at the end of Matthew’s gospel in which those couple of handfuls of original disciples stand around their Lord as He’s about to ascend to heaven – He’s invariably glowing by now - and He commands them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations….”
Cut to those stunned, impassioned few as they hear and begin dreaming…and fervently praying…..
I’d then move to a montage of early house churches that Paul established and show those first worshipers singing the “Christ Hymn” that’s recorded in his letter to the Philippians. This hymn is one of the oldest documents we have about Jesus. We watch mouths ardently sing out to God, one another, and the universe: “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord!” As was especially common in the ancient world, the worshippers fully expect their Deity-offered words to become reality.
The story of Christianity could very well provide a grand testament to the power of those early prayers and praises! Of just what God can do when a few assumed nobodies put themselves out there and, from the bottom of their hearts, make a big ask, the one they definitely feel called to speak.
Of course, it’s probably also important to remember to be careful what you ask for….
After all, arguably the greatest turning point in the Church’s history is when in 313 AD the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and set the course for establishing it as the official (and only tolerated) religion by the end of the 4th Century. This meant a gadjillion more followers of Christ and a guarantee that Christianity would not only survive but spectacularly flourish!
It also meant this faith, originally grounded in the impulse to thumb its nose at the status quo and worldly authority and teach its adherents to live in and for the alternative “Kingdom of God,” now became an institution tasked with establishing the status quo and providing evermore worldly authority as Rome’s government continued to crumble.
No longer was there a ban on service in the military. In fact, it was now important for Christians to go to war to keep the Kingdom of God alive and firmly in control.
No longer was “alternative community” acceptable. Any last vestiges of women’s leadership in the church (which was already trending toward conservatism) were stamped out completely. In addition, all heretical beliefs not in line with what was decided in various early Councils and creeds were also axed, as well as were, literally, the heretics who held them.
It became very important for the Church to have land, lots of land, and all sorts of other fine stuff (and do whatever it took to acquire them). After all, it was now important to show the world that, beyond a doubt, Jesus Christ was indeed Lord of All!!
Yes, lots of things happened once the Church became the big deal everyone had prayed for. Mostly likely a lot of it would have caused Jesus, if he were in a grave, to turn over in it.
There’s what happened in early Middle Ages when the Church, more powerful and influential than ever before, began to expand its project of establishing “cathedral schools” – originally centers of training for young men preparing to enter the clergy – into places where the increasing population of nobility’s children could receive training for proper leadership in government, state and other Church affairs. The Christian Empire was only going to get grander, smarter, and better!
But, as oft happens when people are invited to learn, the ability to think critically developed. Students were introduced not only to scripture but also great Greek philosophical tracts (which monasteries proudly safeguarded for Rome during barbarian invasions and the Dark Ages). Awareness was stimulated as to the many and increasingly shameful perversions of the Church as it struggled to maintain its supremacy amidst the rise of European (and spiritually independent) nation-states.
Next thing you know, it’s the end of the Catholic (Universal) Church and the onset of the great – and very bloody – “Reformation.”
Once again, we witness the Church’s phenomenal successes in following – and engaging God’s aid in realizing -- its original scriptural commands; and it comes to be the reason leading arguably, to the Church's undoing.
Be careful what you ask for. We see this in truth in our Church’s story over and over again.
This is why the history of Christianity would make for compelling tv viewing! It reflects a sly spiritual truth about life in general and brings a tinge of clever humor to what otherwise might prove dreary and heavy-handed goings-on…..
I keep hearing this phrase in my head as I contemplate what’s going on in my denomination right now. The United Methodist Church just finished its quadrennial General Conference – the big convention where big BIG prayers are offered and policies decided upon. And the word on the street (or more accurately, around the rented circular GC tables) is that the things are a scary mess.
And why? Not to generalize too much (as if I haven’t generalized too much already!), it’s in large part because the Methodist Church has been SO SUCCESSFUL! Taking Jesus’ “Great Commission” and Paul’s "Christ Hymn" zealousy to heart, Methodist missionaries compassionately and effectively evangelized and improved life for much of the impoverished Third World, especially Africa. However, as the progressive dream of a just, global church where otherwise forgotten brothers and sisters have an equal, honored place at God’s table is well on its way to being realized, a huge hiccup has occurred.
The most prominent voices for full inclusion in the Methodist Church now come from the American LGBTQI community and its ardent supporters. And “alternative sexuality” is something not only the already large contingent of conservative American Methodists but the increasingly influential and thoughtful (thanks to good Methodist missionary schools!) African throng will not at present accept. It’s just too far a stretch from the traditional world they already courageously rejected to accept Christ.
As a result, when things came to a head at General Conference last week, conversations began in earnest about splitting the UMC or at least dividing it into different theological tribes.
This is understandably very difficult for Methodists to conceive and accept. We are all naturally asked to – and of course plan to – pray about this.
And I can’t help but say, in addition to praying…
Let’s be careful what we ask for.
Or maybe, more accurately, let’s let ourselves see through a Comic Lens the responses to our asks, whatever they may be. I can’t help but think what’s going to result will be tinged with irony and invite at least some dryly humorous appreciation. In addition to the grief, fear and anger that may – will continue to – understandably result.
I think seeking the sly irony might help. And induce hope. Like with what so much of our comic Bible seeks to teach and remind us - sometimes very dryly - about God's unpredictable, upside down ways.