What’s up with the world?
A legitimate question I think when we tune in to the news channel or glance at the news app on our phone or, for some of us still, read a newspaper. It seems to be a bit messed up. There is an unprecedented amount of uncertainty about where we are headed. Our leaders do not seem to be able to address the huge and interconnected challenges we face as a planet. Climate change. Massive migrations of people. The continuing disparity between the few who have more than enough of the earth’s resources and those who daily live on the edge of life and death. The threat of major epidemics. War and terror that seem to worsen in their horror and inhumanity. The ever increasing number of nuclear weapons in the hands of more and more countries. Despite our interconnectedness, our technological advances, our global institutions, we seem to be in as much of a mess as we ever have been in history but with one glaring difference – a capacity for destruction the world and our race has never known.
As people of faith, what are we to make of this? As people who see the hand of love and grace in all that we experience, how do we make sense of this. The world around us seems completely out of sync with what we have learned is God’s plan for life in abundance in the divine reign of peace and justice. The powerful images of the prophet Isaiah seem to be contradicted all around us. Swords are not being beaten into ploughshares, indeed it seems that ploughshares are being beaten into swords. The lion is not lying down with lamb. Indeed the lambs seemed to be being devoured by the lions. And the vision of Jerusalem as a place where all the nations of the world will stream to experience grace and salvation is overshadowed by the deepening divisions and barriers among the nations of the earth. The world seems to have little to do with God’s plan and purpose and we are left to wonder what to do with it.
We are, perhaps, not as unique as we may think. People of faith, throughout the ages have wondered about the world, wondered if it is the place of God’s activity or if it is a place from which we should flee with visions of another world, a world in which all is right and good and in which we will find rest. In the same gospel that in chapter three famously asserts that “God so loved the world . . .” we read the mixed message of this morning’s passage from chapter 17. The world in this reading seems to be a place of danger for the followers of Jesus. A place where they need to be guarded and protected, a place where they are hated and do not belong. Without doubt this would resonate with those who first read or heard the final version of the Gospel of John in the late first or early second century who saw the world as a dangerous place. The Christian faith was spreading throughout the Roman Empire and was becoming more and more distinct from Judaism. They were a small minority who sometimes were tolerated and at other times were persecuted, depending on the whim of the Emperor or that of other more local officials. They refused to recognize the Emperor as Lord, and for that their lives were often on the line. Their small communities were alternatives to the general life of the Empire. Sometimes they were admired for their acts of compassion and charity while at other times they were seen as a threat to the stability and order of the Empire. Their early inclusion of slaves and women as equal members of these communities soon came under immense pressure and even in the books of the New Testament a movement can be seen away from this egalitarianism in order to adhere to and respect the social stratification of Roman society. The powerful of the world did not like to have their positions and privilege threatened. The world was not a particularly hospitable or safe place.
But that has not always been the way that people of Christian faith have viewed the world. The immense change that happened with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity in the fourth century was the beginning of Christendom, a paradigm in which the world and the community of faith were one and the same. A Christian society or a Christianized society in which the world itself was transformed into the kingdom of God. In Byzantine art from the years following Constantine, Christ is often portrayed as an Emperor figure, and the actual Emperor was often at his side. The leader of the world was also the defender of the faith, a notion that would have been impossible for those earlier followers of Jesus in John’s community to have fathomed. And yet this understanding of the world has persisted in its many manifestations until very recent times. “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.”
This past week I had the privilege of attending a lecture at Knox College given by Dr. Stuart MacDonald, the professor of Church and Society. who has just published a book entitled, Leaving Christianity. Stuart, and co-author Brian Clarke from Emmanuel College, have attempted to track the end of Christendom in Canada through census and other data in this fascinating volume. The major protestant denominations in Canada reached the peak of their membership in the mid-1950’s and then experienced a precipitous drop in the 1960’s that has continued to the present day. This, of course, is not news to most of us, but the study helps to track how and when that happened and points to the depth of this change which perhaps those of us who remain in the church still do not want to admit. In his lecture, Stuart reminded us of the beginning of the day, July 1, 1967 when the 100th anniversary of Canadian confederation began with a service of Christian worship on Parliament Hill. In 1967, this was normal and expected. Canada was understood to be a Christian nation. The “world” around us was Christian and was understood and experienced through a Christian lens. Although the mass exodus from the churches had already begun by then, the vast majority of the population still understood itself to be Christian, and would answer as such on a census questionnaire or in a public opinion poll. Fifty years later, on the 150th anniversary of Canadian confederation on July 1, 2017, the day did not begin with a Christian worship service on Parliament Hill. Nor for the vast majority of the population, even the Christian population, would it have been expected to do so. The fastest growing category in the Canadian census when it comes to religion is “No Religion” and it is now the second largest religious category on the census, after Roman Catholicism, at about 25%. Stuart and Brian argue that even this does not tell the whole story because many people who still claim to be affiliated with a Christian church or tradition on the census have no active involvement in that church and those who indicate on the census, “Christian not included elsewhere” often seem to be those who are on the journey from religious affiliation to “No Religion”.
For those of us who have lived through this fifty year period, the transition has been profound. We have moved from a world that was, as Stuart names it, based on a “Christian discourse” to one that is now based on a “secular discourse”. The language and forms of the Christian faith are no longer used in the public space. Prayers, hymns and Bible readings are not used in public schools so unless children have a strong connection to a church, they do not grow up with the vocabulary and stories of the scriptures or of the Christian faith. At times of national celebration or national mourning, it is no longer assumed that there will be a service of Christian worship. On this “Mother’s Day”, only a tiny minority of Canadians would think to begin the day with mother in the church, whereas sixty years ago only a tiny minority of Canadians would risk not doing this. Today, describing Canada as a Christian nation would not even enter into the imagination or the vocabulary of many citizens. For those of us who have gone through this change, both “the world” and “the church” have become very different from what we have known. For those of a younger generation and for those who have come to the church or to Canada more recently, “the world” and “the church” are simply quite distinct and any attempt to equate them may seem odd and anachronistic.
So where does that short romp through Stuart’s book and our changing Canadian society leave us? Although we may not feel quite so in danger in the world as the reading from the Gospel of John suggests we might, we can perhaps resonate more with that understanding than our parents or our grandparents would have. Of course we still live with the legacy of Christendom. Look around the building in which you are sitting and you will see it writ large. But when we walk out the doors of the church, we walk into a world that can sometimes seem very much at odds with the message of the gospel and at times even seems hostile to the language and the public expression of faith. Like our forebears in the community associated with John’s gospel, we may ask what it means to call Jesus “Lord” in the world in which we live and what other competitor or competitors there might be for that title. Even the values of compassion and charity, for which the early Christian communities were known, and which were upheld and practiced in the churches of Christendom, are diminishing in our world. They may be once again admired when others look at our communities of faith but they are not necessarily emulated in the world. Conspicuous consumerism and individualism are much more prevalent values and impact our communities of faith as well with their own attraction and pervasiveness.
What’s up with the world? And what’s up with us who are in the church? In the famous words of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we need to admit that we’re not in Kansas anymore. Although there was much that was good in Christendom, there were also some fatal flaws. When Jesus and the Emperor are seen to be pretty much one and the same there are a lot of compromises that are made. And when patriarchy is equated with the Kingdom of God, those on the margins are left wondering if there is a place for them or not. Perhaps in our time, we can read the Bible with new eyes, or at least with new lenses. Perhaps we will recognize ourselves a little more clearly in the stories of the earliest Christian communities and recognize more clearly some of the struggles they faced. We will have to wrestle more with the relationship between the church and the world. We will have to work on it to understand how we embrace the world that God so loves while also come to terms with the fact that we can feel like strangers and aliens in this world where we are not always welcome and where our message of God’s love for all, and particularly for the least of these, can run countercultural. And, paradoxically, we need to recognize that there are times, just like in the Bible, where the world seems to get the message in a way the church does not. God is at work in the world too and we close our eyes to this at our peril.
Like those early Christians, we are waiting for Pentecost, for the coming of God’s Spirit among us to give us vision and purpose. John’s gospel says that Jesus prays that his followers will be sanctified. To be made holy. To find out what it means to be God’s people in the world. So, come Holy Spirit. Come into this world that many times does not make sense. Come Holy Spirit into the lives of God’s people and enable us to be disciples in this world that God loves.
Thanks be to God.