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In the West everywhere, Christianity is on the run. It has been successfully banned from the public arena, and is under steady attack from various directions. Being attacked is not by itself strange or unexpected. Christians should expect to be attacked. But it is not expected (not by God, at any rate) that His people would be losers, that His people would be unable to present their witness to Him anywhere, anytime, with truth and grace.
As I write, it is December 31, the last day of 2006, and it is, in the Episcopal liturgical calendar, the First Sunday of Christmas [a 12-day season beginning (not ending, as does Santa Claus season) on Christmas Day] for which the Gospel lesson is John 1:1-18, the New Testament creation story. We are looking forward to a new year in the power and authority of Jesus Christ, the risen Savior.
But in the West, one would think that Jesus had died on His birthday. Christmas is dead on December 26. Why is this so? Why are the twelve days of Christmas not celebrated? Does one celebrate a birth for three months prior, and then drop the subject when the child is born? Why are Christians unable to give their public testimony to the Savior of the world? Well, at least for twelve days....
If we go back to early Christian times, to the Roman Empire, we find Christians in great numbers willing to give their lives for their witness. The would not back down when asked to "put a pinch of incense" on the pagan altars, often honoring Caesar as a god. They refused to admit that there were any gods other than the Creator of heaven and earth as described in the Bible, the Christian witness building on that of the Hebrews. For their faithfulness, they were often persecuted, even to death.
Furthermore, they were willing to risk their lives to help those in need. During plagues, when others were fleeing cities for safety to the country side, Christians remained to minister to the needs of the sick, both Christian and pagan, exposing themselves to the disease.
Romans, as were all people of the time, were surrounded on every side with death. It was their constant companion. And they wished to know how to die well, bravely, nobly. They watched the Christians, who seemed not to lose their composure in the face of death, who often sang hymns, rejoicing in Jesus in the face of death. That was a new experience and a new witness for them. There was nothing in pagan religion which even remotely showed that kind of stability and courage. And so, many of them reasoned, "If having Jesus in your heart does that for you, I want Jesus in my heart."
Out of that unlikely beginning, arose Western Christendom (i.e., Western Civilization), a powerful testimony to the reality and power of the Living God of the Bible. Christianity became not only legal, but the preferred, then protected, and then sadly, sometimes mandated, religion of the state.
Christians had known how to deal with Caesar as their enemy. But power corrupts, and Christians, who, of all people in the world should have known better, found themselves unable to deal with Caesar as their friend. They traded in the Way of the Cross, which had won them the Empire, for their grip on power, which slowly began to be more important than following Jesus.
As emperors and kings became Christian, having a Christian civilization seemed like a good thing, but, as all people thought at the time, that also seemed to mean enforcing Christian belief. It seemed necessary for a society to have "one religion", by force, if necessary.
Although the Church never totally lost its vision of a true Kingdom of God on earth, of a true Christendom, the drift toward coercion as a proper tool of evangelism rooted itself in the thinking of the rulers. They, of course, had serious conflict of interest in the matter.
It did not seem obvious to many -- that perhaps the way to keep a Kingdom is to keep using the way you got the Kingdom in the first place -- follow Jesus. Jesus, just perhaps, might know how to run His Kingdom on earth. Perhaps the Way of the Cross has a power which all the legions of Rome cannot touch.
But the drift toward centralized power as the primary unifier of a people overwhelmed the nudgings of the Spirit of God -- that only an honest testimony to Him could unify people. The image of God, despite the monastic renewal movements, became increasingly distant, aloof, graceless, and hidden behind the intervening and all-encompassing magesterium of the Church, along with its collusions with the power of the State. The Church became increasingly corrupt, intellectually, morally, spiritually, and thus, of course, financially, driven by the spirit of control and power, not of freedom and grace. The rising financial institutions, often with original roots legitimately in the monasteries, were discovering that the power of money was greater than that of the sword. Money can buy swords.
The corruption led finally -- to the Reformation.
The Reformation attacked some moral and theological issues in the Church, but left untouched the issues of power. Almost everyone was still believing that a society had to have a unified religion, if necessary, at sword point. But the terrible religious wars inspired by the Reformation to achieve that goal, led people to doubt the need for a one-religion-society, and then for any religion at all.
Christians did not become peaceful (for the most part) because they rediscovered the Way of the Cross, but rather because they had so exhausted themselves in mutual butchery, and because sensible people were at least wondering, "If this is what having Jesus in your heart does for you, who needs Jesus???" The carnage and butchery among Christians did probably more than anything else to undermine public loyalty to the Church and to Christendom, and prepared the way for the now inevitable rise of secularism, known as the "Enlightenment". Christians were unable to say that it was not Jesus who led to the carnage, it was a disobedient Church. And so the drift from Christian faith to post-modern pseudo-pluralism was inevitable.
The Way of the Cross was gaining ground, but, as with the monastic movements, largely outside the official structure of the Church -- and, one might say, in disguise. There is something about truth-seeking which draws men of integrity. As soon as it becomes popular, or has research grants attached to it, then just like government or the Church, science gets corrupted,. But the spirit of truth-seeking rises up in the hearts of men regardless of what the power- and control-centered forces of darkness can do.
What we know today as "science" had begun to take root in medieval monasteries and then universities. It did not wait for the Renaissance rediscovery of Greek philosophy, as some allege, because the spirit of truth-seeking is the very foundation of Biblical religion.
Science, properly understood, is the Way of the Cross for the intellect -- we give up our "right to be right", and let the truth and the Lord of truth speak for themselves. As in, "Come, let us reason together...," or as with Elijah on Mount Carmel (I Kings 18:19 ff.).
The Incarnation is God visiting us on the level playing field of truth, i.e., of reality, where we can reason with Him -- or fight with Him. But that is simply the final extension of His strategy all along, inviting His people into a freewill covenant relationship in which all parties are equally invited to raise questions and make suggestions. The terms are unilaterally His, not ours, but we are free to inquire as we will, and to make our own choice -- yes or no to the covenant.
But the spirit of control still dominated the Church, thus making an enemy of science, and, in that sense, of the Way of the Cross.
God had another channel through which the Cross life was finding expression, but again, in disguise. Like science, only a few had any idea that God was behind it. The second enterprise was the development of due process, freedom, equality before the law in civil government. The highest expression of which has been the democratic republic under God founded in America.
Such a government is, with science, equally an outworking of the Way of the Cross: we give up our right to have our way with power, and let the truth and the Lord of truth tell us how to go about governing. The American Constitution was written to provide just that kind of government. As the Declaration of Independence tells us, the freedoms provided by our Constitution could not have been mandated by any other than a Biblically minded people.
But, again, the Church had given up on the Way of the Cross, was more interested in defending its own turf, and was increasingly captivated by the secular spirit of the age. The Church, by and large, was unwilling or unable to risk either the open discussion implied by science (Well, what if we are proven wrong???) or to proclaim that Jesus is Lord over Caesar, yea, even over the Supreme Court.
Christendom had capitulated to the absurdity of secularized pluralism. Because it did not know how to present its own case for the Lord with truth and grace, because it had lost its intellectual integrity and credibility, it is now in the position, on the outside of public policy, hat in hand, of pleading for a place at the table. And rightly so -- until we become truth-seekers at any cost to ourselves.
God raised up science and due process in civil law, and Christians shunned both. God keeps giving us opportunities to respond to Him honestly, obediently, and gracefully, to reason together with Him with intellectual, moral, and spiritual integrity. And we keep finding ways to make it look like we are -- while doing everything but. The Western Church, for the most part, has not been much help to the Kingdom of God or much threat to the kingdom of Satan.
But no dark force on earth can withstand a healthy, well discipled, Christian community. As the Gospel this morning told us, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."
Had Christians not lost their intellectual, moral, and spiritual integrity over the last six centuries, making enemies of the two new things God was doing over that time, the disaster of the 20th century almost for sure would never have happened. The outrageous slaughter of the 20th century was not done this time mainly by Christians against Christians, it was done almost entirely by secular dictators parading themselves as standing on the moral high ground. But they could get away with such murderous nonsense only because Christians had lost the capacity themselves to stand on that high ground to expose the deceit of the pretenders.
And, to add shame to shame, the most allegedly "Christian" nation on earth, America, is systematically killing its most helpless and vulnerable, babies in the womb. Many of those taking the lives of their children go to some church, but the Church has no united voice, hardly a voice at all, protecting those children. So Christians are still complicit in the slaughter.
The good news is that Christians are beginning to regain their intellectual integrity. That means, if we persist, the renewal of moral and spiritual integrity. There are signs on the horizon of a powerful spiritual renewal, little green shoots cropping up here and there.
But it will require learning how to die nobly, the Way of the Cross. Until we know that for which we will die, death makes cowards of us all. We will come to that place where we are not willing to die, and compromise our faith and our obedience to truth and to the Lord of truth.
Who but Jesus can teach us that lesson of the cross, to have no fear of death, to be able to die well, the lesson of life through death? When the Church begins to teach it, the tide will turn.
See The Amish & the Cross Life, Salvation, Dying Well, the Church, & the State, & Dying a Successful Death
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