I had a friend in college many years ago. One night, as we were talking on deep subjects, we got around to religion. And ol' Jon said to me, "I think that since you believe in life after death, that God will give you a heaven when you die; and since I don't believe in life after death, God will just [let me go out like a blown-out candle]." I asked if he thought that all religions were equally true, then, and God would honor the appropriate hopes and expectations of everybody. He said he thought so.
I thought then, and I think now, that that's an interesting idea -- but is there a shred of evidence to support it? No. (For that matter, interesting or not, such an idea boggles the mind, doesn't it?) And yet, how different is my old friend's idea from one you can hear all over the place in our day? You know which one -- the multicultural thesis:
"We have our religion and they (whoever/wherever they are) have theirs. We shouldn't impose ours on them -- that would be culturally imperialistic."
Have you heard that sentiment expressed? Think about that for a minute: doesn't it rest on two presuppositions?
One: that we have ours -- but do we? People who get all hyper about cultural imperialism usually think of evangelism as making people into white Americans, which is not what I think of when I think of sharing the gospel. And the other presupposition is that theirs (their religion, anyway) is as good as ours. But is it? Sort of depends upon how one measures religions, I suppose. But it also doesn't give folks with no particular religion much incentive to pick one. And so, in this climate -- which is the American scene these days -- there is a tendency for evangelism to lose its punch.
Join us! cries Church A, B, or C. Why should we? ask the unchurched. Well, because we're fun -- we're easy -- we'll make you feel good! (And I assure you, beneath all the fancy theological words they use, there are many churches marketing themselves in just those terms.)
It seems that we have lost the conviction we once had that the world and everyone in it is lost and dying and needs Jesus to save it. (We started losing it a long time ago: it's been two generations since an American missionary heading for China was asked by a skeptical reporter, "do you think the Chinese will be lost if you don't go?" The missionary replied, "No. I think the Chinese are lost, and that's why I'm going.")
The terrible urgency we once had to save them (the uncommitted or unchristian) from perishing has become a terrible urgency to save us (that is, our little church, or our denomination, wherever it may be) from perishing.
And so we have clergy these days who are basically program directors -- or twelve-step addiction counselors -- and we have laity who are merely religious consumers, shopping for a church the way they shop for value in any entertainment or leisure time activity (or educational/self-improvement program). And maybe, if that's all we're up to, then "ours" IS no better than anyone else's. But that's not a conclusion I'm willing to settle for.
Contrast our situation with that of Paul, here facing the Roman Governor Festus and Herod Agrippa, King of the Jews. He is in chains -- but even so, he is safer in prison than being handed over to the mob of ultra-Jewish fanatics who want to kill him. One might think he would be eager not to offend anybody -- least of all Festus and Agrippa. But Paul is bold to speak, and he backs down on nothing related to his cause.
First of all, he insists upon his orthodoxy.
"And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king! Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?"
This is not new stuff. This is what you can hear in any synagogue in the land: the hope of resurrection when God sets out to judge the earth. Paul knows what he means, and it is in line with traditional Judaism.
Then, he insists upon the reality of his experience.
"And I said, 'Who are you, Lord?' And the Lord said, 'I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.'"
Paul is sure this really happened. He is immune to suggestions that he had suppressed guilt feelings, or fell ill, or had a hysterical episode. He knows he is physically and mentally healthy, and sure of what he has experienced.
Many folks would grant Paul -- and us -- so much. But then, today's sceptics would say, "Okay, but what gives you the right to bug me with your vision?" So, third, he insists upon the legitimacy of his call.
"'I send you to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.'"
Leaving room for one's doubts is fine, but obedience to what you ARE sure of comes first, and Paul is emphatic that it is not his message or his goodness that he is spreading, but Christ's message of God's goodness that frees sinners from their loads and restores them to God's company. And he must say this, no matter how many people try to shut him up, or kill him.
Beyond this, he insists upon the reasonableness of his faith. He appeals to evidence -- real facts, not just feelings and opinions.
"I am not mad, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking the sober truth. For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak freely; for I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this was not done in a corner."
Paul is sure that his case can stand up to any honest inquiry by any reasonable mind -- even the best. And when Agrippa balks, and starts to backpedal, saying, You can't think that I'd become a Christian like you, Paul insists that everyone ought to do just that: to be just like him -- except for being a prisoner, of course.
Now, I have never admired the kind of evangelist -- clergy or lay -- who just bulldozes people because he or she thinks he knows what you should be like or believe or experience or pray for. That's arrogant -- and ineffective, besides. But I tell you for true, that the Church of Jesus Christ is doomed to wither away in futility until and unless you and I can honestly say -- like Paul -- that our faith in Christ is so important that we think that everybody should come to surrender their lives to Christ and receive their Father's welcome home -- just like we have done.
So, okay: how do we get there? Well, we would need to insist upon the same things that Paul insisted upon.
First, we're going to have to insist upon the authentic story -- the whole of it -- and not the heavily edited and roughly handled not-quite-Christianity of our day. The Christian story has some difficult parts, some unpleasant parts, some embarrassing parts -- but we do people no favors when we water it down.
Oh, the preacher drops out some of the miracles he or she doesn't believe in anymore, and then the parishioners drop out some of the heavier demands they aren't willing to face up to anymore, and we wind up with something like a Soviet roadmap: whole cities are missing, and roads run off in all kinds of uncharted directions. People ignore maps like that, because with all the suppressed information, it won't take you where you need to go.
In our day, people invent "new" theologies every couple of years and the Church still never seems to get anywhere. (Imagine that.) We're going to have to quit changing the story if we expect the story to change us -- heal our lives -- and show us where we need to go.
Then (second), we must insist upon the reality of our experience. It's astonishingly easy to argue oneself out of faith. Answers to prayer yield to more natural causes. My encounters with God can be explained (and worse, explained away) as natural psychological events.
But, y'know, if we really believe that God speaks to us, how else would he speak to us, if not through our minds, and our feelings, and the events of our daily life? Just because you can assign more than one cause to something doesn't mean God is ruled out.
No. We must be firm that we know Jesus, and are known by him, or else we are trapped in a body and soul that knows nothing at all for sure. This matters, for it is far more important that we hear what God says to us, than that he hears what we say to him.
And (third), we must insist upon the legitimacy of our call to be God's ambassadors offering peace with God to a world of rebels. Now, I am not a pushy person, and don't like the idea of getting in people's faces. But there are people who are most receptive to MY invitation -- or YOURS -- because of the relationship between us. And they want to be just like us -- if they only knew how.
And just as there are times when it is right and important to share what we have, there are other times when we must defend our right to do so. We must not be put off by the anti-Christian bigots who think American Freedom of Religion is freedom from religion; for everyone -- including you and I -- has the right to be who we are, and say who we are, and invite others to join us in being what we are. And more than that, as followers of Jesus Christ, we have a duty to do so.
Then (fourth), we must insist (as Paul did) upn the reasonableness of our religion. We most NOT lock up our brains and throw away the key. It distressses me more than I can say when I see that traditionalists or evangelicals (however you'd describe Christians like us) fear honest inquiry into our faith and constantly discourage it, while the radicals no longer believe inquiry can be honest, so they just chant slogans; either way, theology is reduced to a partisan shouting match.
Meanwhile, there are a lot of folks who might be glad to follow Christ, if someone would just explain why they should, and how they can. And when you do that, they are so surprised at how much sense Christianity makes. But then, Christ is the "Word" -- the Logos -- the divine Reason that the ancients said made sense of the universe.
And above all, we must reclaim catholicity for the Church. "Catholic" doesn't just mean "universal"; it means "culturally portable," too. The holy catholic Church can be at home in any culture -- and will judge every culture, including our own. Today's intellectuals deny that is possible, but their buzzwords of "inclusiveness" and "diversity" are just a pale imitation of what catholicity implies: a Truth that is True for everyone, but which can be received and expressed in every tongue, race, culture, society, kingdom, nation, people, or group -- by every soul for whom Christ died -- in a way that is authentic to that soul in her social context.
Do we dare to say that everybody should come to surrender their lives to Christ and receive their Father's welcome home -- just like we have done? Well, the Church is just spinning her wheels until we do, but let me point out that the really hard part to say is that last part: just like I have done.
John Wesley came to Georgia when it was first started to convert the Indians, of all things. You see, Wesley was depressed and worried at his lack of personal faith, and he thought that if he could convert the Indians, his faith would come to life in bringing their faith to life. That wasn't really fair to the Indians, but no harm was done: the Indians had their own religion, and didn't want his. And he couldn't much blame them, for his wasn't doing him much good.
It was only after he found that faith for himself that anybody listened. And then a lot did listen, for Wesley had something to say. He said, "I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ -- Christ alone -- for my salvation. And assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins -- even mine -- and delivered me from the Law of Sin and Death."
For the next sixty years, Wesley wasn't a bit shy to invite anybody and everybody to be just like him, and let Christ take away their sins (including many Methodist Indians, I might add). That's how this church came to be standing right here, with you and me in it. Missionaries -- some clergy, some laity -- came into this newly opened country and began gathering the people into classes to learn how to follow Christ. Those classes became congregations, and out of those congregations came this body.
And if you and I will dare to claim that faith for ourselves, and invite others to share it, even greater things may God yet do for us -- and through us -- and in us.
Blessed be his Name for ever. Amen.