Proclaiming the Message: Evangelism, Discipleship and the Temptation of Constantinian Christianity

[This is the transcript from a sermon that I preached yesterday (Sunday, Feb. 8th) on the New Testament lectionary readings, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 and Mark 1:29-39. The audio is available here.]

I started teaching a class two weeks ago that some of you have attended called “Christ and Culture,” and at the beginning I basically posed this question: “how do we as Christians, and as the church, understand and relate our message, our good news, to a society that increasingly does not recognize the authority of the Christian faith?” Both of the readings today speak to the importance of proclaiming our message of good news. Jesus proclaimed the message, Paul proclaimed the message, and we’re to proclaim that same message. In many ways, there’s hardly another activity commissioned for Christians to do that produces more anxiety or reveals more insecurity than that of evangelism. Maybe it was easier in the past when a higher percentage of people in this country were going to church. It felt more natural to talk to people about faith, because it was a more routine and normal part of the national life! Of course, that is changing.

It’s important to remember though that when Jesus and Paul were proclaiming their message, people didn’t recognize the authority of a Christian faith at that time yet either. So despite some big differences in our situation and theirs, we may be able to learn more from their example than we might expect about not just the nature of the good news message itself, but also how to share the gospel even in our situation today. We’re going to look at the two passages that were read, but first, I think we can also learn something from Church history about this.

As some of you are probably aware, until the 4th Century, Christianity was growing rapidly in many places, but it was still a marginalized movement with a minority status the Greco-Roman world. It didn’t have political or social power. So when the Emperor Constantine claimed to have this vision and became a Christian, legalizing Christianity and eventually making it the official religion of the Roman Empire, this initiated a radical cultural change. Positions of church leadership acquired real public status and influence. Many local churches acquired substantial property and land. They didn’t have this before. Christian laws were put into place. And this sounds kind of good, doesn’t it?

“The paradox of the church, was that it was a religious revolutionary movement, yet without a conscious political ideology; it aimed at the capture of society throughout all its strata, but was at the same time characteristic for its indifference to the possession of power in the world.” — Henry Chadwick

“Before Constantine, one knew as a fact of everyday experience that there was a believing Christian community but one had to “take it on faith” that God was governing history. After Constantine, one had to believe without seeing that there was a community of believers, within the larger nominally Christian mass, but one knew for a fact that God was in control of history.” — John Howard Yoder

So before Constantine, the church was perceived as subversive to the dominant culture. Afterwards, it became representative of the dominant culture. So the question is, after Constantine, did the church capture society, or society capture the church?

And then, maybe we should bring this question to the present, and ask it of our own church as American Christians in this culture. That’s the question I want us to have in the back our minds as we look at these two texts for this morning. Because this question also serves to help us answer the first question: how do we as a church relate the gospel to a society that doesn’t know or trust it? By trying to control society or have power over it, or by the way Jesus did it? 

“Evangelism is living together as followers of Jesus in such a way that would not make sense if the Gospel wasn’t true.”–Dorothy Day

In this way, the gospel will fascinate people. It will capture their imaginations. We don’t have to capture political power or strive for cultural dominance.

Ok. In Mark 1, first we read that Jesus performs these healings. In the First Century, it was very common for people to believe that having a disease was a result of sin or even God’s punishment of sin. Only God could control this stuff. So when Jesus demonstrates power and authority over disease and the spiritual realm, the power and authority of God is associated with him.

This leads people to react strongly to him — one way, or another. This is a common occurrence in the New Testament when the Gospel spreads, especially in Acts. Initially, the crowd’s response to Jesus is very positive. They embrace him. They want this good message and healing and deliverance that he’s bringing. They need it and long for it.

We always should notice that Jesus’ healing and miracles were appealing to an outcast and impoverished class. This was the group he was identifying with, which if you’re in a position of imposing foreign government on people and this is going on, you know it probably spells trouble. And Jesus knew he was on a collision with both the religious elites and the security-obsessed power of the Roman Empire. So it says in Mark that he prevents the demons from speaking about him! And presumably, for two reasons:

  1. One, it might have led to the crucifixion even sooner than he intended before having the chance to fulfill his teaching and prophetic mission.
  2. But two, and more importantly I think, Jesus could have easily continued to impress and heal more people. He could have tried to capture society and probably succeeded. This is certainly what the crowd wanted from him, but he doesn’t give in to the temptation to please and earn the admiration of others. He already resisted this temptation from Satan in the desert. He’s not exploiting his potential to achieve fame and influence.

And what was especially unique to First Century people less the miracles themselves but what they were used for and by whose authority. Other miracle workers in the ancient world were trying to do seek after the acclaim and financial gain that came from it. Jesus had no interest in this sort of thing. What made him unique was less that he was doing the miracles, and more about what they meant.

And, Jesus knew that God’s power is not revealed solely through miracles, but through sacrifice and suffering, as the crucifixion will show, so he didn’t stick around to continue to do the same miracles for very long. He had to keep preaching the Gospel.

The word “gospel” or, good news, as y’all might know has the same root as the word evangelism in English – it’s the Greek word evangelion, and this word was known to people in the First Century, but it was associated with something completely different. It had political and military connotations, and it was thought, for example, that Caesar Augustus’ birthday announcement was “gospel” news, or the report of Roman victory in battle was “gospel” news. So Jesus takes concepts that people are already familiar with and transforms their meaning. Jesus and Paul both do this when they use the word “gospel.” They use it to proclaim different good news – better good news – and to pose an alternative to the dominant cultural’s way of life in their day, and we’re to do the same Gospel in our day.

And this Gospel that Jesus preaches throughout the book of Mark, is about the availability of the Kingdom of God! The Kingdom of God is another word for God in action, and that action is grace – grace for new life now, forgiveness for sins, yes, but even before that, it’s deliverance from sin, you see. It’s the availability of a transformed way of living.

And it’s the promise that, even though the world makes it very hard to believe this sometimes, and we take this on faith, but it’s the promise that God is good, and we have a future in him, no matter what suffering and death we might face. And if we’re honest, we doubt sometimes — I doubt this sometimes — which is skeptics and seekers should be welcomed into our community and into this conversation about the Christian faith.

But this is one of the greatest challenges for the church today, and always has been: It’s the challenge of getting the message right, and understanding what the good news actually is! We struggle with cheapening or distorting it.

For one, too many people, even when they hear the gospel, it doesn’t sound like good news. It sounds like bad news. Or maybe just good advice. Sometimes our own sin shows up in the way we tell the good news.  We water it down, or we even project our own fears on to it. I think it’s common for many Christians to still think that God is just tolerated us because of something Jesus did on our behalf. But that’s not what we believe. The good news is that God is like Jesus. They have the same character. And because God is like Jesus — not because Jesus pacifies God — we have a hope in healing, hope in the forgiveness for sin, deliverance from sin, and a future even in the face of death and suffering. We have this hope because Jesus is good, and God is like Jesus.

Another thing that sometimes happens that distorts and cheapens the good news is the separation of evangelism from discipleship, or conversion from discipleship, that we saw after Constantine. Where it becomes acceptable to be a Christian and believe certain things, going to church from time to time, but to continue seeing Jesus’s teachings as basically optional.

At the same time, this doesn’t mean we have to be perfect in order to call ourselves Christians.

A disciple is a person who has decided that the most important thing in their life is to learn how to do what Jesus said to do. A disciple is not a person who has things under control, or knows a lot of things. Disciples simply are people who are constantly revising their affairs to carry through on their decision to follow Jesus. — Dallas Willard

Look what happens to the first person Jesus heals in this story – this is easy to miss. (It’s also easy to miss the detail about Jesus’ life and practice of prayer, but that’s another subject). It tells us

“Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.” Mark 1:30-31

Unfortunately we don’t get a name for Simon’s mother-in-law, but that’s how it goes sometimes for women in the Bible. Though it always seems like women are the first to pick up on things, and in this case it’s no different. What does Simon’s mother-in-law do once she’s healed – she serves!

This is what happens when people experience God’s grace and healing in their lives. It’s a picture of discipleship and evangelism at the same time. Disciples want to give away the grace they’ve received because they know they’re never going to run out of it.

This is a very different response to Jesus than what the crowds tend to have. The crowds want more healing, more miracles, more exorcisms, and they’re never going to stop asking for them. Now, it’s not exactly the same thing, especially when we consider the socio-economic differences, but it’s kind of like the way some people view church. They come to church to get something, and the church makes religious consumers out of them…

This is because we’re always being discipled by something. When we’re not in church, or in a posture of prayer or service with God and others, we’re likely getting inundated with the liturgy of the culture around us, which is a culture of consumerism, individualism, and fear. It’s a culture that longs for worldly security. Which gets us back to the question: Is the church capturing society, or is society capturing the church?

Like many Christians after Constantine, we’re tempted to make the same mistake the crowds did, and that many of the Jews did. We want Jesus to stay in one place with his healing power and authority from God, and to restore our worldly Kingdom. This Constantinian Christianity is still around even today.

And when it comes to evangelism, one of the other things the church has to do is not just be honest about our doubts, but be honest about the sins of our past as a church. We’re sinners, and because of that, the institutional Church has committed and will continue to commit sin in this country and throughout the world. We’ve hurt people, we’ve been complicit in injustice, and blind to abuse at times. We have to own this history — not brush it under the rug. We’re not trying defend our religious group or its history. We’re trying to preach the gospel that we need as much as everybody else needs. And, yes we do this with boldness, but we do it with great humility, and when necessary with confession and repentance. We’re not trying to impose our faith on others.

Jesus’ message is always an invitation, never an imposition. He is always pursuing but never coercing. Are we trying to control and manipulate, or can we intrigue and fascinate? If it’s true, if the gospel is true it will entice people without us having to try so hard.

I heard a story told recently by Shane Claiborne about a rancher who was saying that there two ways to herd cattle:

  1. The first way is to build fences. This is labor-intensive. You have to monitor the fences, repair the fences.
  2. But the other way to get cattle to do what you want, which this rancher said is the best way, is to have a good, central food source. It achieves the same outcome as a fence, but in a much less tiresome and coercive way.

That’s what we’re doing in evangelism. We’re just leading people to the source. We’re not hoarding around the source like the crowds. We get life from the source, and then we share the source — like Simon’s mother-in-law.

So much of our evangelism in the past was just trying to get people to come onto our side of the fence: by either trying to convince people our beliefs or are true or to see them conformed to a particular set of rules — instead of leading them to the source of grace for daily life in the Kingdom of God.

Constantinian Christianity wants to build and police fences. Gospel Christianity takes people to the source.

Now, postmodern religion, individualistic or relativistic religion, call it — you know, anything- goes or cafeteria-style religion — that’s kinda like free range grass fed cattle herding, roaming around with neither fences nor a central food source. I’m all for grass-fed, free range chicken and cattle — just not when it comes to our faith. We don’t need to build fences, but this free range stuff won’t do either.

You know, we’ve been talking about other religions some in the Christ and Culture class, including “religions” like secular humanism. Most of the other ideologies that are out there in the world — most of them aren’t evil. We don’t have to fight or fear them. Some of them are saying some good and true things, especially when they’re at their best. They’re just not saying gospel things.

  • Buddhism teaches some compelling things about the self and what’s causing our suffering and discontentment, much of which Christians can agree with, but Buddhism ultimately says that the best thing that could happen to you is basically for you not to exist as an individual person anymore. I don’t find that to be especially good news. It doesn’t follow from this that Buddhism is “wrong,” and the Gospel is “right,” but they are two different messages.
  • Islam teaches that’s there’s one God who is holy and just, and that we should love that God and our neighbor. That’s good and true stuff, and it lays out a way for us to do this. But instead of the Gospel, instead of grace of God made available through his coming to us, Islam puts forward a Law that humans have to submit to, and inevitably, people fail to measure up to that.  So as a faith, it is sometimes in danger of perpetuating either guilt or self-righteousness zeal.

Look at the way Paul evangelized. He spoke to differently to Jews and Greeks in the book of Acts. These are the two groups to whom he was trying to be “all people.” “All people” in 1 Corinthians 9 really just means Jews and Gentiles — in this case, for Paul, that was everyone. Paul isn’t telling us that we should just change ourselves or our message according to every environment or every person’s demands, and obviously Jesus wasn’t willing to do that either.

Now, there will be differences though in how we talk to different people and where we start. Paul and Jesus both demonstrated this. The Gospel for the Pharisees sounded a little different than the Gospel for the woman caught in adultery.

Paul was able to be all things to both of these groups because he wasn’t doing any of it for selfish gain, and because Christ had moved into the center of his life:

“I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life.” 1 Corinthians 9:20-23 (The Message)

I know it’s Paul talking here, but the passage actually just makes me think of God. In truth, God is the greatest evangelist of all, who literally did become all things to all people, by becoming a human being who endured all things and overcame all things to get to us — going to the greatest possible lengths, experiencing the depths of human suffering and rejection. And so it in this way, Paul means to imitate God’s activity in Christ.

That’s our same commission. That’s how we understand and relate the Gospel to the society around us: By imitating God himself and what he did through Jesus, as Jesus. And if we communing with each other, as we are about to in a moment, then extending that same communion to others who aren’t yet disciples will be the natural outcome.

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