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A good number of years ago I visited a good friend in Ecuador. He is a member of the tribe with which my parents worked for many years. We are the same age, and we were childhood playmates. Now, a grandfather like I, he is an elder in his community.
Primitivo is an intelligent and thinking man. We talked about the future of the Tsachi people. In the space of two generations they are catapulting out of the 19th century into the 21st. His people, he said, must become Indios civilizados, civilized Indians. Yes, on one level it is crude language, but he laid it all out for me.
- They would send their kids to college,
- They would diversify their economy beyond merely agriculture.
- They would organize democratically as required by the Ecuadorian government,
- They would become “civilized,”
But at the same time,
- They would teach the younger ones how to paint their hair,
- They would make a point to preserve and tell the old stories,
- They would teach the younger generations to speak “pure” Tsafiqui,
- How to build an “old style” house,
- And where they came from and where they are going.
- They would remain “Indian.”
Like the Tsachila, the Church faces an uncertain future. We are catapulting out of the age of institutionalized religion into an unknown future. Where will the Church land when it all shakes out and how should we navigate the changes? Primitivo’s vision of an underlying and unchanging core of what it means to be Tsachi is like our underlying story of Jesus that is unchanging and eternal. Primitvo’s vision of a flexibility to speak to the issues of the day is like the Church’s ability to adapt to the ever-changing horizons of modern life.
The tension between faithfulness and relevance is the creative and dynamic tension in which the Church lives its life. It is reflected a common theme through our readings this morning. In the book of Acts we see Paul adapting the story of Jesus to the world of ancient Athens, preaching the Unknown God. The Epistle lesson calls us to be ready to make a defense for the faith that is in us. In the Gospel lesson Jesus promises us the Holy Spirit, the Comforter who will come from the Father, the very Spirit of Jesus who will not leave us as orphans. Just a few verses further in the chapter Jesus promises that this Spirit of Truth will teach us all things. The Holy Spirit is our vital link with the story of Jesus and all its power as we carry it down through the ages.
When these passages were written the Gospel was not at the center of society. Roman law dictated a politicized Emperor worship based loosely on the ancient Roman pantheon of gods and goddesses. It tolerated other religions as long as they allowed for the token Emperor worship. Most peripheral religions didn’t mind “sharing” in this way, but Christianity suffered at the hands of the Romans for its insistence that the Caesar did not deserve to be worshipped as a god. Christianity was one of many voices speaking in the day. It had to defend itself in the marketplace of ideas in which it had no benefits, no advantages and no privileges. It had to maintain faithfulness to the story AND adapt to its surroundings enough to appeal to new members. The flexibility of Paul in Athens, the faithfulness to the story of Jesus in the Epistle lesson, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in a chaotic and often unpredictable world are the pillars on which would be built the mission of the Church.
I think that the future for the church will be a lot like the early centuries. What has been called the Age of Christendom is ebbing away. We are fast losing any shred of benefit, advantage or privilege. The politicized secular religions of humanism on one side and capitalism on the other pressure us to burn incense to their gods. Institutionalized Christianity is becoming a relic of the past. In the midst of all that Christians stand for a higher authority. We do not allow that the human being on one hand, and the bottom line on the other, may demand our final and highest allegiance, good though they may be in and of themselves. We have a story that anchors us beyond such changing and limited goods—the story of Jesus, and what that story has done in the lives of women and men throughout 2000 years of history.
Personally, I think this is cause for hope. Tertullian said in the 2nd century, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Adversity has a way of making us serious about what we are doing. It makes us lean and strong. Phyllis Tickle in her book, The Great Emergence, (2012) traces 3 times in the western society since the time of Christ when society has undergone a profound shifting of the social order. The Church has always entered those times in decline, but emerged from them renewed, and stronger than ever before. She argues that we’re in a fourth such shift.
When we cannot rely on privilege in our Christian life we are forced to rely on the Spirit and the Story instead. We must carve out a place for our faith in the marketplace of ideas on an even footing with everyone else. I can’t think of a more exciting time to be a follower of the Christ!
Just as in the early church this was done well and badly, we can do it badly. Since the early 2000’s there has been talk of “Christianists” vs. Christians. Christianists are militants who want to reestablish Christendom, like the word, “Islamists,” from which the term is derived. For them the American story and the Jesus story are the same story. They see any critique of the American story as heresy and treason, and fighting for the American way of life is the same as fighting for the Kingdom of God. They generally do not use the bloody tactics that some Islamist groups do—they use politics and laws instead—but their end is the same: to put the state on the same level as faith. Christianists are about as Christian as Islamists are Muslim. True Christians, on the other hand, claim allegiance to Jesus first, and fit earthly loyalties into their faith, not the other way around.
We can also do it well. Like Paul in Athens, we can discover ways to speak the message of Christ that are relevant to those around us. Like the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews we can be ready to give a defense for the ancient faith that is in us. Based on Jesus’ promise, we can rely on the guidance, wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit to guide us.
In terms of today there are two things that I believe are important to remember.
1. Faith is not doctrine. Faith is a living relationship with God. Theology, said Thomas Aquinas, is faith in search of understanding. We make room for our faith before we make room for our doctrine.
2. We are not alone in the marketplace of ideas. Like Paul in Athens among many gods and goddesses, there are other voices that hold forth in today’s marketplace. You don’t see Paul attacking the other gods and neither should we. We must learn to stand beside them in respect and appreciation, being in relationship with others of other faiths, while holding diligently to our own. Besides, they may have wisdom to expand and enhance our own!
The future church will be Indios Civilizados. It will be nimble, able like Paul to capitalize on what is good and useful around us, shifting and changing according to the changing scenery of our society. It will be rooted, faithful to the eternal story of Jesus, and never forgetting that by the power of the Spirit Jesus still has the power to transform our living and redeem our dying. It will be committed. It will be lean and strong, following faithfully, engaging the world in genuine love and respect, and as generous as Christ on the Cross.
Here we are in Penny Park, outside the walls of the building we call our Church, in the world, surrounded by the society in which we live and move and have our being. Let it be a symbol of what is coming.
Walk with me into the Once and Future Church!