Saturday Night Theologian
20 May 2007

Acts 16:16-34

Christianity can be a big inconvenience to people. Take the issue of poverty. Those who champion unbridled capitalism think that the profit motive is the key to happiness and success, but then Pope Benedict XVI goes to Brazil and denounces it as an affront to God, since it fails to follow the biblical imperative of caring for the poor. Or take the issue of immigration. Millions of church-going Americans are up in arms about all those people from south of the border who have the effrontery to desire a better life for themselves or their children in the U.S., but now even many leading evangelicals are speaking out and saying that we should follow Christ's example and welcome the stranger in our midst. In 1917 novelist and social critic Upton Sinclair published his book The Profits of Religion, in which he denounced organized religion for supporting the status quo and siding with the rich against the poor. Unfortunately, his critique was accurate in too many cases, but not in all cases. The way to combat the "profits of religion" is with the "prophets of religion." Christians are called to prophetic in our outlook on life, and that means standing firm against any nation, organization, political party, or individual whose practices run contrary to the will of God, especially in reference to God's concern for the lowliest members of society. When Paul was passing through the city of Philippi one day, a woman possessed by a spirit of divination followed him and harassed him, and finally, in exasperation, he turned around and cast out the spirit, rendering the woman a financial liability to her erstwhile employers. Christianity had cost them money, and they weren't going to stand for it. They pulled a few strings, called in some favors, and had Paul and Silas thrown in jail. How often has standing up for what is right landed people in jail in recent years? The leaders of the Civil Rights movement often found themselves in southern jails because of their strong stand for the rights of all people to be treated equally. War protesters over the years, from those protesting the Vietnam War to those protesting the current War on Iraq, have found themselves muzzled or in jail as well. Even protesters who were doing nothing more than wearing t-shirts with anti-war slogans have found themselves the targets of overzealous police officers and administration officials in some places. Protesters against the School of the Americas in Georgia routinely find themselves jailed for their stance against torture. Christians should not be surprised when their positions on various issues put them at odds with the dominant culture, political opponents, or large corporations whose only motive is profit. A popular political commentator in recent weeks has chided those Christians who have opposed repressive measures against undocumented workers in the U.S., reminding them of Paul's admonition in Romans 13 to obey the government. I think Paul might have found the idea that Christians should subvert their understanding of God's will to obey the sometimes ungodly laws of the state pretty amusing, as he sat in jail singing hymns to God, grateful that he had been deemed worthy to suffer for the sake of Christ.

Psalm 97

But now, instead of discussion and argument, brute force rises up to the rescue of discomfited error, and crushes truth and right into the dust. 'Might makes right,' and hoary folly totters on in her mad career escorted by armies and navies.

American pacifist and abolitionist Adin Ballou penned these words in 1846, in a book entitled Christian Non-Resistance. He understood, as many before him had, that the biggest bully on the block is not automatically right, just because he can knock anybody he wants to on his back. Ballou understood that the biggest bully on the block wouldn't always remain the strongest. Some other kid might outgrow him. Smaller kids might band together to oppose him. A parent or police officer might rein him in. A bully gets his way for awhile, but not forever. In Ballou's day, slavery was the law of the land, and it was supported by the federal government (e.g., the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850), the government of many of the individual states, and even by the Supreme Court, which denied the right of a slave entering a free state to claim his or her freedom (the 1857 Dred Scott case). Such moral outrages raised the consciousness of many Americans who had not before seriously considered the problem of slavery, since it didn't directly affect them, and within twenty years of the Dred Scott decision, slavery had been abolished in the U.S., though not until after a tragic Civil War. The psalmist understood that God wanted the nations of the earth to be based on justice, not might. He could have said that God's reign was based on God's invincible power, and no one could have disputed it, but he didn't. Instead, he said that God's reign was based on righteousness and justice: they are the foundation of God's throne. Implicit in this statement is the mandate that human states be based on righteousness and justice as well. The strongest military power on earth today is the U.S., but that military might means nothing without a commitment to justice. Wars of choice, support of oppressive dictators, and gross misuse of the national treasure in the face of unprecedented hunger and disease around the world belie the claims or some that the U.S. is God's special choice to lead the world. The world community is coming to the realization, slowly but surely, that the U.S., for all its military might, is largely impotent when it comes to imposing its will on others. Furthermore, many Christians in the U.S. are tired of the country squandering its wealth--and more importantly, the lives of its young men and women--on adventures that run contrary to the divine principles of justice. More important than God being on our side should be our desire to be on God's side of the critical issues of the day. In the end, those with might lose it, for, as Abraham Lincoln reminded the nation, "right makes might," not the other way around.

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

One of the great arguments of the Reformation era revolved around the question of whether good works were essential for salvation. Martin Luther and the Protestants said no, faith alone is sufficient. The Roman Catholic Church said yes, good works demonstrate that one's faith is indeed authentic. Wars were fought for more than a century between Catholic and Protestants, ending only in 1648 with the signing of the Peace of Westphalia. The wars did not convince one side that the other side was right. Ironically, they demonstrated the weakness of both arguments. Faith that allows itself to be subverted into the atrocities that inevitably accompany war is an impoverished, weak faith that is incapable of garnering the approval of God. On the other hand, deeds of bloody conquest are hardly the good works that would curry God's favor. Faith and good works are both important, and anyone who goes to war over the dispute has neither. In the final chapter of Revelation, Jesus tells John the Revelator, "See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone's work." As a Protestant myself, this verse might have caused me problems years ago. What does it mean that God will repay me according to my works? Does that mean that salvation is based on works after all? The question misses the point, if by "salvation" I mean only a narrow, otherworldly existence with God in heaven. God's rewards are real and tangible, and they begin in this life for those who believe and do the work of God. Does that mean that the faithful will receive wealth, as some TV evangelists claim? Of course not. Just look at the lives of Paul, Peter, Ignatius, Perpetua, and many others like them, and of Jesus himself. What, then, is the reward that the faithful can expect? The reward is what Jesus says in the first part of the verse: "See, I am coming soon!" People of faith can encounter God in the here and now every time we do some good work. Sometimes our reward takes the form of the smile of a child who gets a new toy for Christmas when she wasn't expected to get anything. Sometimes our reward is making a new friend of a homeless man. Sometimes our reward is simply the feeling we get when we know we've done our best for God. And rewards in the afterlife? Who knows what form they will take, but if the rewards we get on this planet are any harbinger, they'll be great!

John 17:20-26

The Ecumenical Movement in the twentieth century grew, in part, out of the modern missionary movement of the nineteenth century. Christians in America and Europe were divided into innumerable denominations, each sending out its own set of missionaries to "convert the lost" in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. What the missionaries discovered once they reached the mission fields, however, was that the differences that seemed so important at home rally meant nothing on a different continent. Baptists and Methodists started working together, as did Anglicans and Presbyterians. In many places even Protestants and Catholics worked together on occasion. At the early missionary conferences, the sending denominations decided that sharing the gospel did not include the attempt to poach Christians from another denomination. A few decades later, when the World Council of Churches was born in 1948, many Christians had learned the importance of working together, worshiping together, and loving one another on the basis of their common faith in Christ. It had only taken 1900 years for Jesus' so-called High Priestly Prayer to come to fruition. Of course, not all Christians bought into the ecumenical movement, but over time many more Christians joined. Although the movement was almost exclusively Protestant at first, many Orthodox groups soon joined. The Roman Catholic Church, which has more members in a single faith tradition than the rest of the world's Christians combined, has not joined, but it regularly sends observers to WCC meetings, and it collaborates with other Christians ecumenically in a variety of different ways. Today the ecumenical movement boasts more than a billion and a half Christians, with less than half a billion still refusing to participate in the fellowship that Christ desired for his followers. And the number is growing still.