Sermon: Can the Church Fix the World?

Preaching Text: “‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.’” (Hebrews 12:26b)

The other day a church member sent me an e-mail containing old print ads from mostly the 50s and 60s. They were hilariously out-of-date.

My favorite was a man alongside his wife holding a measuring tape. The caption read: “How to measure your wife for an ironing table!”

Another had a drawing of a woman lying on the floor caressing a vacuum cleaner with a bow on it. Its caption read: “Christmas morning she’ll be happier with a Hoover.”

Yet another advised women: “To keep a slender figure no one can deny…Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.”

In sum, and to put it mildly, these ads were all a tad bit dated!

Which reminds me of the hit TV show from the late 50s and early 60s, 77 Sunset Strip, starring the estimable Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. and featuring the ever-popular fictional character, Kookie!  At the time, the show was thought to be edgy, though today it would seem utterly tame, if not amusingly so.

The reason I bring this up is that I was not allowed to watch the show. Instead, I’d have to go to school the next day and hear all my friends talking about whatever “cool” thing happened on the hip “Strip” the night before.

It wasn’t the content that was the problem. It’s just that my parents thought I should be in bed by the time it aired!

When I confronted them about this clear instance of poor parenting, citing example after example of classmates who had watched the show without any discernable problems, I was offered this unsatisfactory response: “That may be fine for them,” they’d say, “but in this house we have a different set of rules.”

The same goes for the church. There are any number of behaviors the culture deems perfectly fine-and-dandy while the church does not. Just pick up a copy of People or US! the next time you’re at the doctor’s office.

A few weeks ago I discussed briefly what Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, called haustafeln, literally meaning “house-table,” but translated as “house rules.”

In biblical times, these house rules referred to the ethics of personal conduct within the church and related specifically to the church’s larger mission. Their main purpose was to govern the way relationships functioned internally within the church

An ancillary hope was that the church’s values and norms would serve as a positive role model for the wider culture. So, too, the church hoped that such exemplary moral conduct might allay any fears the public might have about the church being some sort of dangerous, anti-social cult.

The important thing to remember, however, is that these rules were primarily intended for insiders, for conduct within the church. What happened “out there” was of less significance than the practical functioning within God’s family. (This pretty much mirrors the view my parents had regarding my TV habits!)

Needless to say, the church’s internal logic differed significantly from society’s as a whole. Specifically, its internal logic was based not on any strategy for fixing the world per se, but on the foundational belief in what God had done in Christ and was promising to do in the future. It was this belief, and none other, that determined the church’s “rules of engagement.”

In his introduction to the Book of Revelation, the famed Scottish biblical scholar, William Barclay, pointes out that there are basically two strains within both the Old and New Testaments: the prophetic and the apocalyptic.

The prophetic strain deals mostly with the religious effort to critique human behavior in an effort to improve it. This can, by extension, lead to improvements within society.

The apocalyptic, on the other hand, argues that only God can fix the totality of what truly ails us, and by means of a sudden and dramatic breaking into time. Only God can reorder, repair, and ultimately fix the otherwise unfixable problems caused by sin and evil. Only a spiritual solution can fix a spiritual problem.

While the prophetic tradition focuses on human beings as the agents of change, the apocalyptic, in contradistinction, sees God as the only actor capable of ultimately restoring holistic goodness to our world.

Many today, however, confuse the biblical notion of the prophetic with the Enlightenment’s bald usurpation and misapplication of the inner thought-world of the biblical tradition.

Essentially, the Enlightenment promoted the belief in perpetual progress, progress that ultimately would usher forth an ideal state of natural happiness, with human beings leading the way.

It’s important to note that prior to Israel’s religious insights, life never progressed. It just operated in cycles, or was utterly random and chaotic. It was Israel who first established that life was intended to progress toward a desired end.

So the Enlightenment took this idea but essentially left God out of the equation. It was humanity, not God, who would direct and establish the future good.

Such an approach, of course, tragically underestimates the obstacles humans face in attaining perfection here on earth. Instead the church, in keeping with its apocalyptic hope, insists that only the “victorious Lamb” (Christ) can and will overcome every spiritual power that would defeat the forces of good.

G.K. Chesterton once said that Christian virtues can do “terrible damage” when they’re disconnected from their source. “The modern world,” he said, “is full of Christian virtues gone mad.” And why have they gone mad? Because they are “isolated from each other and are wandering alone.”

The values formed within the church, on the other hand, are based on, and integrated with, a specific Christian belief system unique unto itself. Thus its values and norms do not always translate well in an alien culture that does not believe, for instance, that the world was designed by a Creator for a particular spiritual purpose. When that purpose is absent, even the church’s best values can be distorted and used in the service of alien purposes.

I used to get a kick out of watching my father interact with people who didn’t know him and didn’t understand his sense of humor. Because he had a very dry delivery, people frequently couldn’t tell whether he was joking or not.

It would not be unusual for us to go out, say, to a restaurant and watch him make a joke that caused others to look at him with utter confusion, wondering if he was kidding or not. Meanwhile, we in the family would be doubled over in laughter.

We’d often remind him that people outside the family won’t necessarily get his humor, though we of course did! Without a sense of the family’s internal logic with respect to who he was and what made him tick, misunderstandings were inevitable…and frequent!

The salvation of the world, as laid out in the Book of Revelation and implied in today’s reading from Hebrews, and which serves as the internal logic within God’s family, is not something gradually effected through human effort, but secured solely by the in-breaking work of the resurrected Christ.

This means, among other things, that the house rules of the church are not intended primarily to fix what’s wrong with the wider world, but to prepare the community of Christians for eternity (when things “shake out”).

As controversial as this may sound, the ethics of the church family were never intended as a prescription for how to save the world, but as a set of ethical norms by which to live as we faithfully await Christ’s return, those norms being an imitation or precursor of the anticipated life to come.

That the Church’s ethics have had a salient effect on the world around us is not in dispute – only the ultimate effect such ethics can have on a world otherwise blind both to the reality of God as well as God’s purposes. Amen.