Here are my thoughts for the 5th Sunday of Easter.
Links updated on 18 February 2010
Sometimes it is interesting how things work. For the better part of the week, I thought that this Sunday was April 27th instead of April 20th. So my thoughts about the Scripture during the week focused on both April 27th and May 4th (when I go back to Dover). I had not given much thought to the Scripture for April 20th because of that.
But in my post of April 18th, “The Bottom Line”, I said that I would consider the church’s bottom line at a later date. Then I reread the Scriptures for the 20th and I found the thoughts that I needed. Isn’t it interesting how things work sometimes?
For those that didn’t read the post, I made the observation that the ultimate bottom line for the church is the number of souls that are saved. I also commented that such a measurement would be a little difficult to determine. In truth, the only way that you are going to know your impact on life, be it in the church or education or some other field, will be long after you are gone from this place on earth. But if we wait until such time to determine how well we have done we will have wasted many opportunities.
The problem is that we evaluate those opportunities in ways that often are counterproductive to the mission of the church. At times, we are more interested in the number of warm bodies we can put in the pews each weekend or we are interested in how much money we contribute to the missions of the church.
Yes, we should be contributing our time, talents, and funds for the missions of the church; yes, we should be seeking to have large numbers of people in worship each weekend. But those measures are often used as substitutes for the actual work of the church. And we measure the success of a church by those same numbers.
But what happens if a church is in an economically depressed locale? Are we to abandon that church because its numbers are dwindling and its monetary contributions are falling off? What is the mission of the church if it is not to bring hope to an area? What message of hope can be given if the church itself bails out of an area and says that it cannot survive there?
People have come to believe that if they attend church regularly and they tithe, then they have met the requirements for being a good and faithful Christian. They see the church in that same way as well.
This, of course, is contradictory to the major precept of the church that it is one’s faith in Christ that is the sole requirement. Too often we turn the words and thoughts of the Scriptures from what they are into what we want them to be.
We forget that the early Christians more often than not died because of their beliefs. We forget that the early Christians had to meet in secret because of their beliefs. We forget that the early church was a community brought together because of a desire to live a life that was demonstrated to them by Christ. And we have forgotten that we are take the message that was given to them into the world, not forcing people to believe but rather showing them what it means to believe.
As Peter wrote in his first letter (1 Peter 2: 2 – 10), we are a chosen people. But that doesn’t make us exempt or remove us from the world; nor does it make us “special.” In fact, it means exactly the opposite. We are to be in the world, showing the world what life can be. It does not make us special, other than we live with a confidence that the secular world cannot provide.
The road that we travel each day is the same road everyone else travels. And for many people, that road is fraught with danger and uncertainty. As Thomas first said to Jesus, “we do not know where you are going so how do we know the way?” (John 14: 1 – 14) Thomas’ thoughts are our thoughts; we do not know the way and we seek to find the answer within this world.
Of course, we cannot do that; for the way that we must walk is a way of life, not a road. It will not be an easy life and those that say that Christianity promises an easy life have no clue as to what they are saying. The only certainty is that we have a secure foundation in Christ and that foundation will be the protection that we need when the winds of change and uncertainty blow around us.
What is the bottom line for Christianity and the church then? We are called to bring the Good News to the people. That is the bottom line. We are not called to be prisoners or martyrs for Christ. We are not called to convert people or condemn them; we are not called to stand on a street corner in our home town and shout Bible verses at the top of our long. We are called, instead, to live a life that shows the power of the Holy Spirit present in our lives.
Is this dangerous? Yes, it is. People have died living the life that Christ taught us to lead. People have been criticized and ostracized for leading the life that Christ calls us to lead. And people have left the path because they do not want the criticism, the ostracism, and the threat of life. But when we lead the life of Christ, we can approach all those fears with a new found confidence. Stephen preached the Gospel to the people and the people reacted by killing him. But through it all, Stephen praised God and asked that the people be forgiven. (Acts 7: 55 – 60)
To be sure, to be willing to die for a cause does not make the cause right. But if we are called to die for our faith, then we can see the immense worth of our faith and the worthlessness of much that we hold to have value. In his trial Socrates taught that the purpose of life is not to avoid dying but rather to avoid unrighteousness.
During the Civil Rights struggle of the early sixties, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of the value of truth:
I can’t promise you that it won’t get you beaten. I can’t promise you that it won’t get your home bombed. I can’t promise you won’t get scarred up a bit — but we must stand for what is right. If you haven’t discovered something that is worth dying for, you haven’t found anything worth living for. (From Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell)
The outcome of those days was a change in the mindset of the people, though I am not so sure it is remembered that way today.
What good did it do for Stephen to die? Remember that an on-looker to this event was Saul of Tarsus. Yes, he will soon begin prosecuting Christians but one has to think that this set the stage for his own encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus and his conversion to Paul.
I began with a focus on the bottom line and our need as a people and as a church to think about what that constitutes. The bottom line is not the number of people in the pews for a given worship service nor is it how much money is spent by a church or individuals on mission work. And the bottom line is not your death in the name of the cause. Those who seek their death in the name of their faith have a very poor understanding of their faith. But if you understand your faith and you are willing to live your faith, then you will face the outcome with joy and celebration. That is the bottom line.