Today and the next four weeks we will be looking at Hebrews, which is on the lectionary calendar. But when I asked the Worship Committee to guide my preaching of Hebrews, Dave Hoag did a little homework and read something that said Hebrews was about idols. Would I preach about idols? This is the kind of challenge I love so I agreed. When I started digging into the theme of idols in Hebrews it became clear that the lectionary did not feature the best portions of Hebrews to discuss idols. So I decided to move us off the lectionary in order to address the topic.
In my reading and thinking I came across a technical article by the New Testament scholar Jason Whitlark showing that there are five places in Hebrews which quote parts of the Old Testament which all refer to idols. This is a tricky argument because Hebrews doesn’t use the word idol once in the whole letter – but assumes that the congregation who read the letter knew their bible really well; well enough to recognize the context of the sources of these quotes – and in each case the sources were referring to worshipping the gods of the Gentiles, the pagan gods. They were warnings against falling away from faith, being persuaded to leave the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and worship the gods of the peoples who surrounded them.
For most mainline American Christians these days these five sections of Hebrews do not sound very nice
Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy
We know the one who said, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’
God’s soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled
Indeed our God is a consuming fire
And the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary that so many of our churches use have intentionally left out the harsher sounding bits of the Bible, so if we don’t read the Bible outside of worship we are rarely exposed to them. The United Methodist hymnal also has removed many portions of the psalms that deal with judgment, which is why we have an insert for psalm 135.
But taking a hard look at the difficult bits of the Bible can yield spiritual growth. If the Christian faith offers salvation, we need to know, “salvation from what?” Where is the danger? Idolatry is dangerous attraction to anything that will lead us away from the saving grace of God. Fred B. Craddock wrote in his commentary to the Hebrews that there are churches that “do not believe they are anywhere near such dangerous spiritual brinks [and some] do not believe that such brinks even exist.” He further points to the contemporary Christian experience of luxuriating “in a world of grace without ethical demand.” Perhaps one key to the decline of our churches is that we have overdosed on “Jesus loves me”, while avoiding the teachings about God’s judgment altogether.
So I invite the Methodists among us to prepare in these next four weeks to roll up our sleeves, sit with some words of scripture that feel uncomfortable and see if the struggle will help us grow as a church. I plan to post these sermons on our website so others can read them too. Craddock encourages us in this work saying, “Trust that…a lesson…will come in due season. Recall the reminder of Clement of Alexandria that the bible does not yield its hard-won truths to every casual passerby.” So now for today’s sermon on apostasy.
This week I read an interesting blog by an Episcopal priest who is an experienced youth minister. He reflected on two points
- 20-30 year olds attend church at 1/2 the rate of their parents and ¼ the rate of their grandparents.
- 61% of churched high school students graduate and never go back! (Time Magazine, 2009) Even worse: 78% to 88% of those in youth programs today will leave church, most to never return. (Lifeway, 2010)
The word to describe people who are part of a faith community and then leave it is apostasy. Some how American churches have become very good at raising apostates over the past 50 years; and at the same time we are very poor at winning new converts. And we who remain within the church are experiencing the results in many ways, though trouble with our budgets, and having enough people to share the work certainly hold our attention best.
The experience of apostasy is not new to the church in our age. It has always been a problem for the Jews. Hebrews frequently quotes Deuteronomy, a book of the Bible largely concerned with preventing the Jewish people from declining. Laws of the Covenant between the Lord and the children of Israel include circumcision, kosher food laws, the practice of keeping the Sabbath, and warnings against marriage to someone outside of the faith. These all serve to keep the Jews set apart from the rest of the world with less risk of abandoning the One who brought them out of slavery in Egypt and worshipping the gods of the cultures around them. Old Testament bible heroes like Daniel and Esther were tempted to assimilate into the surrounding culture, and give up their faithful worship of the Lord so they could keep their status and even their lives, but these bible heroes refused and remained faithful.
Looking over the letter to the Hebrews we get a sense that the Christian community reading the letter had suffered for their faith. Remember, Christianity was more of a minority than Judaism; a small sect in a world that mostly worshipped the Greek and Roman gods. Christ had not yet returned; some Christians had experienced persecution, hostility and even torture because of their faith and it was considered dishonorable to publicly follow one who endured the shame of the cross. In those days Christians were looked at in the way we might look at someone who claims to still be following David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. To the world around them Christians of the Early Church were a bunch of wack-os!
Apostasy under these conditions was an attractive choice. The Letter to the Hebrews is a strong pastoral exhortation to the church in crisis not to abandon their faith. The author chastises their “infantile spiritual state…and on the other hand assumes that they are capable of following a lengthy and complex [discussion about salvation in Christ].” But a choice to stick with Jesus was by definition a choice to experience persecution and maybe even martyrdom. As Christian historian Kenneth Latourette put it,
“The [Christian] faith centers about one who was executed as an alleged threat to the established order and throughout its course it has been punctuated by forcible attempts to curb it…. Jesus warned those who would follow him that persecution would be their lot, that he would be a source of division and contention, and his words have been amply fulfilled.”
In the first couple of centuries Christians were often put to death. But as a method of stamping out the faith all together it backfired. The heroic behavior and last words of the early Christian martyrs served only to inspire more and more people to convert, finding their salvation in Christ. As one early church father put it the martyrs were like seeds of a dandelion that served to spread the church even as they fell into the ground.
But in time the Roman leaders took a different tactic. Rather than focusing on stamping out the Christians per se, their aim was to revive the old religion of making offerings on the altars of the gods, believing that the decline of their empire was due to angry gods who had not had enough attention in a very syncratic age. In the year 250 the Emperor Descius issued an edict that all Roman citizens who sacrificed to the gods would receive certificates and those who did not were punished by persecution, imprisonment and torture. Emperors Valerian and Diocletian expanded on Decius’ tactic in later years. Actively seeking to generate widespread apostasy, they aimed their attack at those in leadership positions of the church, and at the laity who had high rank in the government and society. They confiscated church property, banished or enslaved Christians, burned sacred books, destroyed church buildings, demoted Christians from places of honor, while always promising release and restoration if only they would sacrifice to the old gods. This was an official government policy that encouraged apostasy.
In light of this attack apostasy was seen as one of the top three sins by the church; right up there with murder and gross sexual offenses. But after the Christians from Britain to Arabia endured Diocletian’s persecutions for over ten years the church began to name degrees of apostasy. Those who complied fully with the government and made their sacrifices without a struggle were the worst, those who lapsed briefly but repented during the persecution were a little better, then there were some had taken advantage of certificates sold on the black market pretending to comply with the law by submitting false documents, and others responded by fleeing to safety. A new category was created for those who were exemplary too. While the term martyr denotes those who witness to their faith in Christ unto death, confessors are those who undergo all manner of persecution short of death but do not break the covenant marked by their baptisms. From this viewpoint these terrible times for the churched, and the unfaithful response of apostasy was not all bad, for it purged the church of the weaker luke-warm members, leaving it stronger and healthier, if smaller.
Apostasy in the context of Freedom of Religion But our age is different – so very different. Our American government was created to protect us from persecution like the ones imposed by emperors Descius, Valerian and Diocletian. We have separation of church and state, which forbids government imposition of religious practices upon the citizens. Instead American has promised its citizens freedom of religion. So what does apostasy and idolatry have to do with us?
The thinker I offer today to help us with this part of the equation is my ethics professor Stanley Hauerwas. In a chapter in his book After Christendom? called, “The Politics of Freedom: Why Freedom of Religion is a Subtle Temptation” Hauerwas argues that freedom of religion is a bad idea for people within the church because it undermines discipleship. He says freedom is not sufficient to secure itself. All the great religions recognize this. “Christians claim that Jesus offers them not only freedom from sin, despair, and death, but also calls them to discipleship.”
Hauerwas goes on to explain that Freedom of Religion is a subtle temptation because in a society where everyone shares mostly the same religion there are social pressures in place to guide the choices of the people. In the early days of our country most only had a choice between different Protestant denominations. Do you want Cheerios or Trader Joe’s Os? After enough Catholic immigrants had entered the scene the choice was still mostly between different expressions of Christianity (Do you want Cheerios or corn flakes?) – and at first they were still limited because the churches made mixed catholic protestant marriages difficult if not impossible. But now the country has come of age where people see religious choices that are vastly different. Maybe you want hot cereal instead of cold, or bagels and locks, or perhaps seaweed soup and rice, or some nice fish for breakfast. Or maybe you’d rather just skip breakfast all together.
In response to “market pressures” most of our churches made efforts to make our choice more attractive. Let’s skip over the hard parts of the Bible, all those parts about judgement and condemnation. Let’s make sure the children know Jesus loves me, but let’s not really every explain to them what his death and resurrection mean for our salvation. Let’s have fun activities in Sunday School – Popsicle sticks and Easter bunnies. Let’s make youth group fun with apple picking, sports and trips to the water park. Let’s make baptism simple – you want to baptize your child even though we just met? Sure, how about next week? You want a church wedding when you confuse the building with the true church, which is the people, and have no interest in pre-marriage counseling? No problem, if you can give us the fee we can provide the pretty place and a respectable friendly pastor to officiate. The trouble is, as the youth minister’s blog argued, is that for all our attempt to make Christianity an easy choice, the kids who have been raised in this kind of church have become apostates.
I “shared” the blog on my Facebook page and it generated a bit of discussion. Johanna, a friend from Girl Scouts and High School, offered this reflection. “The ‘To Sir with Love’ baloney offered to me instead of catechism in my confirmation class left me confused, alone, empty, lost and depressed.”
Freedom is not sufficient to secure itself. Christians claim that Jesus offers them not only freedom from sin, despair and death, but also calls them to discipleship. In Eugene Peterson’s words today’s passage from Hebrews warns us “If we give up and turn our backs on all we’ve learned, all we’ve been given, all the truth we now know, we repudiate Christ’s sacrifice and are left on our own to face the Judgment—and a mighty fierce judgment it will be!” But Hebrews assumes that we actually have learned about the truth of how Christ’s sacrifice for us brings our salvation. I believe that in large part most of the people who have been raised in the American churches in the past 50 years were never taught this truth. Some of us have stayed, for other reasons, but like my friend I believe our hearts are still crying for basic answers to the big questions of the Christian faith. “Why did Jesus have to die? and what does it have to do with my life??” But to answer this we need to talk about sin, death and judgment – with one another and with our children.
Freedom of religion, when embraced uncritically within the church, leads to apostasy, and apostasy by definition involves a break of the covenant relationship with Jesus Christ, and to putting other things and people above the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which is idolatry.
But there is hope. The whole gospel truth about Jesus and salvation may not be known by all of us, but there are people like Stanley Hauerwas and Fred B. Craddock who, like the prophets of old, are calling us to repent. There are churches that do teach the whole gospel. Johanna found such a church in 1984 when she went to college and she says, “I thank God he led me where he did to hear my hearts cry for answers. When I heard the answer to those questions the first time, my life was changed, never looked back except with overwhelming gratitude for what I had been saved from!”
The United Methodist Church’s mission statement has been reshaped so that we are to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Apostates can’t transform the world for Jesus; only disciples can do that. And Discipleship means that we teach our people to know the Bible well enough that when the preacher makes allusions to Daniel or Esther or idol worship they will get it. Discipleship means that members of the church have large portions of scripture, and many, many hymns written on their hearts. Discipleship means organizing our finances so that we actually give one tenth of God’s gifts to us back to the ministry of the church. Discipleship means sitting through a sermon that is longer than 10 minutes because the preacher is trying to provide remedial Christian education. I went to seminary after 25 years of consistent life in the church, and repeatedly felt outraged that no one had told me the things that I was finally learning. Discipleship means looking for fruits, evidence that members have truly repented and given their lives to Christ. Discipleship means not confirming one more young person on baptizing one more baby without an expectations that these folks will move forward to support the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. Discipleship means that even in a society where we have freedom of religion we hold fast to our allegiance to the teachings and grace of Jesus Christ – even when others think we are crazy, even when we can’t play in the game if we choose Sunday worship over the practice, even if we become conscientious objectors so we can persist in loving our enemies. Dicipleship means that we in the church recognize that our freedom comes from faithfulness to God and as a result can never be given or taken away by a state.
 Matt Marino “What’s so uncool about cool churches? September 23, 2012