Editor's Note: Below is a "Monday Sermon," from our series of sermons at the Patheos Preachers Portal that pastors can enjoy and learn from. It is our hope that this particular series from Daniel Harrell, which preaches through the Church Fathers, will encourage pastors, show them a way of approaching theological education from the pulpit, and refresh their theological memories.
See Reverend Harrell's columnist page for more information.
Alabama Methodist bishop Will Willimon, formerly the chaplain at Duke University, recounted a conversation he once overheard between two Duke students where the first told the second how he was a Christian, to which the second replied, "Well, whatever works for you." "You don't know much about Christianity do you?" the first student said. "It doesn't work for me. If anything Christianity works on me, changing me into somebody I don't always want to be."
Bishop Willimon went on to talk about how here in America, everything is so much about usefulness; or as he put it, whether or not something folds out into a bed. In order to make Christianity useful, he said, we reduce it down to sets of simple principles as if Jesus' main mission had been merely to make life in first century Judea easier.
But then you read Jesus' words and you realize that ease of life was the last thing he had in mind. "Realize that if the world hates you," he said, "it hated me first. You do not belong to the world because I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you too."
The gospel comes with full disclosure: Following Jesus can be hazardous to your health. When Jesus said "take up your cross" he meant "die on one," a big reason most people decided not to follow Jesus back then. Of course these days, to take up a cross has mostly come to mean putting up with fellow Christians or boring sermons, ridding yourself of some selfish habit, or taming your libido. Persecution in America mostly comes in the shape of personal discomfort—coming clean with family and friends that you go to church, suffering ridicule and embarrassment at work or maybe resistance for trying to start up a Bible study in your neighborhood or on campus.
Yet I'm intrigued with how for some Christians, the answer to such comparably painless persecution is not "rejoicing for being counted worthy to suffer for the name," but rather getting a Supreme Court justice nominated who will be sympathetic to Christian causes. It's as if the idea is to weave the gospel so tightly into the fabric of our culture that being a Christian will become natural and normal and not so countercultural, not so otherworldly.
Is this a bad thing? There are places where it's already happened. While on a recent trip to my Southern home, I drove past a store called Mike's Gun Shop and TV Repair. (I guess a gun could used to repair a TV.) It wasn't even ironic for Mike's Gun Shop and TV Repair to display a Christian fish on its marquee. We all know how much Jesus would have loved guns and a funny episode of Desperate Housewives.
The fact is that whenever the countercultural gospel blends with the world, it's inevitably the gospel that loses its flavor. Salvation becomes a self-improvement program. Christian ethics reduce down into useful fold-a-bed life applications. Christianity itself degrades into a civil religion devoid of any bite or embarrassing holes in its hands and feet; a religion to advance political policy, covered in the Living Arts section of the newspaper, a gospel that works for the world instead of on it.
I don't want to sound ungrateful. I'm relieved most days that being a Christian minister in America means that I'm generally considered irrelevant and harmless. I mean, I could live in Uzbekistan where a 19-year-old Christian was arrested and reportedly beaten for being too vocal about his faith in Jesus. Or in Indonesia, where three children's workers have been detained for running a Christian church camp that Muslim children attended. Or in Saudi Arabia, where two Indian Christian workers remain imprisoned on charges of proselytizing. Or in Iran, where a military colonel was sentenced to three years in prison for becoming Christian. Or in India, where police arrested five men for the murder of two Christian pastors because the men wanted to "teach a lesson to those converting Hindus to Christianity." Or in Pakistan where a church was bombed on Easter. At least here in America I can go home after church and watch TV without worrying about some sinister knock on my door.