Saving the Nation
Last week, I spoke about what I termed this present darkness. I spoke about gospel light in the midst of our national trauma. Consider the basic institutions of our country: the former president and 17 co-defendants were indited this week of racketeering. It has been more than a century since there was such a great divide between the rich and the poor, and in every county, including our own, poverty and homelessness is a problem.
Millions of people are giving up on church, synagogue, and mosque; confidence in the Supreme Court is at an all-time low; school board meetings have turned into shouting sessions; and state legislatures have turned with a vengeance on the LGBTQ community.
There has never been a year when so many weather-related stories were first on the evening news. Gun violence has become an epidemic. Just this week, the community college right here in Hendersonville launched a program with the title, “Comprehensive house of worship security operator program.”
Last Sunday, one of the most respected public intellectuals in the country (David Brooks) wrote this in the New York Times:
Why have Americans become so sad? The rising rates of depression have been well publicized, as have the rising deaths of despair from drugs, alcohol, and suicide. But other statistics are similarly troubling. The percentage of people who say they don’t have close friends has increased fourfold since 1990. The share of Americans ages 25 to 54 who weren’t married or living with a romantic partner went up to 38 percent in 2019, from 29 percent in 1990. A record-high 25 percent of 40-year-old Americans have never married. More than half of all Americans say that no one knows them well. The percentage of high-school students who report “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” shot up from 26 percent in 2009 to 44 percent in 2021.
My second, related question is: Why have Americans become so mean? I was recently talking with a restaurant owner who said that he has to eject a customer from his restaurant for rude or cruel behavior once a week—something that never used to happen. A head nurse at a hospital told me that many on her staff are leaving the profession because patients have become so abusive. At the far extreme of meanness, hate crimes rose in 2020 to their highest level in 12 years. Murder rates have been surging, at least until recently. Same with gun sales. Social trust is plummeting. In 2000, two-thirds of American households gave to charity; in 2018, fewer than half did. The words that define our age reek of menace: conspiracy, polarization, mass shootings, trauma, safe spaces.”
What can a gospel church be, do, and say to such a world? What difference can a Christian community make amidst such chaos? How can we sing for joy and live with hope surrounded by all this, and what impact can it have? Can we save the country?
I begin with a dissenting voice. I do not believe things are as bad as these statistics make it seem. Our economy is strong, we are not at war, there are no street riots, and Taylor Swift rules the world.
Plus, we are living in the overlap of the ages, and I mean baseball and football.
I reject three common Christian options: First, some preachers tell us to forget this world and focus on the world to come. “This world is a burning ship,” one pastor used to say frequently, “and we must get as many off as possible.” He meant, of course, just get ‘em saved and ready for heaven. This has been popular for decades; it was the culture in which I was raised.
Then there is what one Catholic writer called The Benedict Option. It is the title of a book calling our world a new Dark Age. This philosophy pushes Christians to withdraw from the world and form isolated communities to keep aflame the fire of truth and beauty. Versions of this created monasteries in the Middle Ages and modern-day Amish communities. It is a call to retreat.
Finally, and more recently, obey the Holy Bible when it says, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” This command to “have dominion” has been embraced by a whole new army of religion warriors. They contend that only stout-hearted Christian men can safely lead this world and rescue it from danger and dissolution.
None of these work for me, and none of them gather up the whole counsel of God. None of these light a candle in our darkness, and none of them inspire me to hold a loft the gospel light. They are negative in the extreme. With these options, we cannot sing for joy or live with hope. We must find another way.
Here, in Antioch, we have another way, a godly way, a Christian way. It is the path of Jesus, of his disciples, and of authentic Christian living. It is the pattern for us as a gospel church. It is the truth that will light our candle and dispel the darkness. It is the song of joy we can sing, the word of hope we can live.
To Antioch, the people of Jerusalem fled with persecution broke out. In Antioch, Gentiles were first baptized into the Way of Jesus. To Antioch, Saul of Tarsus, himself a convert to Jesus, was summoned to help teach and lead. In Antioch, these jews and gentiles were first called Christians.
In Antioch, controversy erupted, as some Jewish believers asserted: These Gentiles must first become Jews before they can become followers of Jesus. From Antioch, Saul and Barnabas were commissioned to carry the good news to the Mediterranean world. To Antioch, Saul and Barnabas returned with their wonderful news of faith and obedience to Jesus.
In Antioch, controversy erupted again, over this issue: what part of the Hebrew Bible must followers of Jesus obey? The text says, “They argued vehemently.” From Antioch, representatives traveled to Jerusalem to set before the church there this question: what does it take to be a Christian?
Antioch sits right there with Jerusalem and Rome as the place where important, consequential things happened.
The 15th chapter of Acts of the Apostles offers one version of what happened. It is not the whole story, but it is enough for us to learn some things about being church in the world.
What happened at this conference, saved the Jesus movement and transformed the world.
In the place of conflict, these first Jesus people created, first, a place of conversation. The community gathered to talk about this issue. Many people spoke and reported. They asked questions and offered answers. They listened to one another. They sought to understand.
Several years ago, the founder of the Jude Project interviewed me for a podcast. That ministry is focused on apologetics, which is explaining and defending the Christian faith. She asked me, “What is the number one need today?” I responded, “Listening. Christians need to listen more and speak less.” We need to listen to the world, listen to our neighbors, listen to our own souls, and listen to the Lord.
In addition to conversation, they put high value on consensus. In our national life, we see the destructive impact of 50% plus 1. On the Supreme Court, in the Senate or House, even in our local agencies. Instead of majority rule, the gospel way is the way of consensus.
To decide how to understand the will of God, Baptists adopted the practice of voting: by show of hands, by standing for the count, by placing a ballot in a box. This emphasized the role of every single person in the discernment process, even though there is little evidence that such democratic values were at play during that first century of congregational life.
Regardless of how decisions are made, consensus is the cornerstone. Here in Jerusalem, in the year 49, several respected people stood to tell their story and offer their judgment; and, in some way, the people gave their approval.
Third, those first believers adopted a policy of inclusion. The question before them was this: Shall we accept these people or reject them or make them change to be like us? The urge to reject has always been strong. Reject the Catholics. Reject the liberals. Reject the Africans. Reject the gays. Reject the Fundamentalists. Reject the Native Americans. Reject anybody who is different. Make them become like you and me.
But those early disciples decided on a policy of inclusion. We, as a congregation, made this same decision earlier this year. We are following the pattern of Jerusalem and Antioch. You may recall from a sermon last year, that some scholars believe that the first and original confession of faith in early Christianity is found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Fourth, that first Christian conference or business meeting understand the importance of communication. Communication is listening first, speaking second, and reporting third. All of that happened at this Jerusalem conference. The people from Antioch traveled to Jerusalem, speaking and listening to reports all along their way. When the assembly convened in Jerusalem, people spoke, and people listened. But when it was over and consensus had been reached, they wrote down their judgment and delivered it to others.
But communication is also writing things, like the letter these people wrote to believers everywhere. This morning and every Sunday morning for months, we have printed our policy of inclusion in the order of worship. It is also on our website. Today, we have a broadcast to communicate our joy and hope. We have a newsletter and a web site. We have meetings, like after church today, complete with food.
Finally, those believers from Antioch and Jerusalem had compassion. Before this conference, a prophet came up from Jerusalem, populated by Jewish Christians, to Antioch, dominated by Gentile Christians. He predicted a famine in Judea, so the Gentile Christians took up an offering and sent it to the Jewish believers.
This, no doubt, inspired Paul. After the consensus was reached about inclusion, Paul traveled the Mediterranean world preaching Christ and practicing inclusion. But everywhere, he promoted an offering for the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and Judea. The famous generosity texts in the two letters to the Christians at Corinth are about this offering. Those on the winning side, perhaps we could say, collected a great offering for those on the losing side; and Paul delivered it to Jerusalem.
No decision in the congregation should undermine compassion. In fact, every element of worship and ministry needs to nurture compassion, generosity, and care for our neighbor.
Conversation. Consensus. Inclusion. Communication. And compassion: With these values and practices, can we be an outpost of salvation for the nation, even the world? Can this little church demonstrate a way of being in the world that can redeem the Christian religion and be a model for global community?
Can this path to singing with joy and living with hope be a way forward for the whole world?
There are five Cs: conversation, consensus, inclusion, communication, and compassion. The five Cs: Some of you can remember these because it reminds you of your report card all the way through school. But mostly, we want them to remind us of Jesus and what it means to walk in the Way.