This is a thrilling time to be alive. This is a terrifying time to be alive.
Next week we will begin a series of catechism sessions based on the recent ACNA publication, “To Be a Christian.” By curious coincidence, I received an email a few days ago from the Billy Graham Association with the title, "A Dangerous Time to Be a Christian.” Of course the article itself was referring to being a Christian in the Middle East or in parts of Asia and Africa. But there already are places in Europe where being a Christian is becoming risky and there are those who fear that in a few generations the risk could become greater in the US as well. At best, we feel a sense of impermanence coupled inevitably with a certain anxiety about the future.
Anxiety about the future is not a 21st century phenomenon. It certainly existed in the first century, as evidenced in several of our lectionary texts this morning. We could trace it through every single subsequent century, including throughout the century when most of us grew up, a century of two World Wars, the dark clouds of the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Gulf War.
Rod Dreher, a senior editor of The American Conservative, cites the Marxist sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who coined the term “liquid modernity” to describe a way of life in which “change is so rapid that no social institutions have time to solidify.” He said that the most successful people nowadays are flexible and rootless; they can live anywhere and believe anything. Dreher thinks that liquid modernity is a more or less unstoppable force—in part because capitalism and technology are unstoppable. He urges Christians, therefore, to remove themselves from the currents of modernity. They should turn inward, toward a kind of monastic modernity. He said, “The flood cannot be turned back. The best we can do is construct arks within which we can ride it out, and by God’s grace make it across the dark sea of time to a future when we find dry land again, and can start the rebuilding, reseeding, and renewal of the earth.” St. Benedict, Dreher said, didn’t try to “make Rome great again.” He tended his own garden, finding a way to live that served as “a sign of contradiction” to the declining world around him.
Is Dreher right? Should we all find our ways to a Monte Casino monastic retreat from life and society? Is this what we’re called by Christ to do? Or is this a kind of religious escapism, a selfish withdrawal from a society that desperately needs and privately admires our witness to the truth of God’s Word in God’s world, a world that periodically spins out of control whenever self-centeredness trumps godliness, and whenever our missional objectives regarding the redemption of the world are clouded by our pessimistic fears and withdrawals. Then the world is left to its own troubled devices.
Whenever our bishop, Alberto Morales, speaks to the clergy, he loves to emphasize four things that define our identity as a diocese: we’re Anglo-Catholic, we’re Evangelical and we’re Charismatic, that is, we’re a 3-stream diocese within a 3-stream denomination (ACNA); but he always adds with special emphasis a fourth defining characteristic of our diocese, and that is that we are missional. Reaching out to our world with the Gospel message is not optional.
Yes, the battle rages, and yes, we are uncomfortably in the middle of it. We would like to go hide in a Bruderhof, a Christian enclave theoretically modeled after the sort of communal existence of the early Church in the first century, similar to the Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston. Carried to the extreme, we would all quit our day-jobs and sequester ourselves in some safe place where we could grow our own food and build our own houses and have our own doctors and perhaps even have a priest or two. But to do that would mean to surrender our missional identity, which would mean altogether ignoring the Great Commission to go into the world, make disciples and baptize new believers (Matthew 28:19). It would mean to ignore Jesus’ final words before His ascension to the right hand of the Father, “You shall be My witnesses to the uttermost parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
What am I doing this morning? Am I abrogating my responsibility to speak from our texts and to proclaim the Gospel? It may seem that way on the surface, but in fact everything I have said so far sprang from my own pondering of today’s texts, even if some of it seems at least slightly tangential. I even found myself going back to one of last Sunday morning’s texts, triggered by Peter’s repeated use of the word “imperishable.” In the context of all that I have just said about the troublingly transitory nature of our existence that Dreher called “liquid modernity,” there is little to which we wish to cling more fervently than anything that can be labeled “imperishable.”
Last week we read from I Peter 1:3, 4: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you.” Today we read in verses 18, 19 and 23, “You were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. For you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable through the living and enduring word of God.”
That’s at the very center of what I’m desiring to share with you this morning. The world in which we live swirls around us in ways that are sometimes confusing, sometimes bewildering, sometimes disorienting and sometimes absolutely terrifying. But we do not need to crawl inside a figurative ark to escape from it. We’re not without a secure mooring. We have an imperishable inheritance that will not fade away; we are redeemed by the imperishable blood of Jesus Christ; and we are born again of imperishable seed “through the living and enduring Word of God.”
What is “imperishable seed?” It’s seed that will take root and never, ever die. What kind of seed is that? Where can you buy it? If you ask for it at the local nursery, you may find an employee reaching for a phone to call 911. But Peter makes the connection for us in a decidedly Judaeo-Christian manner: he says that the “imperishable seed” is that which comes “through the enduring Word of God.” Once again we come to that favorite maxim of mine: God always keeps His promises. He always keeps His covenant promises to His people. In his magnificent Pentecost sermon, Peter says, “Men of Judea and Jerusalem, the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself. Be saved from this perverse generation” (Acts 2:14, 39, 40). And 3,000 souls responded to his invitation.
How secure a basis do we really believe the “living and enduring Word of God” to be? Shouldn’t we find it infinitely more trustworthy than the words of men? On what basis did the risen Jesus Christ speak to His disciples who, just like we, found themselves at sea in the midst of anxiety and fearfulness in a frightening time when they could not imagine what the future might bring?
He guided them through Scripture. What Scripture? According to today’s Gospel, recounting the experience of two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, Jesus “explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures, beginning with Moses and all the prophets” (Luke 24:27). Later in the same chapter Jesus appears again to these 2 disciples along with the 11 and says this: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).
What’s the point? It’s that the promises of God, fulfilled in the life and work of His Son, rest on the imperishable Word of God that pledges to us an imperishable inheritance, a redemption based on the imperishable blood of Jesus and a rebirth based on an imperishable seed. That’s a lot of permanence in a world filled with impermanence, a lot of imperishable in the midst of all that is perishable, a lot of the incorruptible in the face of all that is corruptible, a lot of certainty for a time of “liquid modernity.”
In God’s realm there’s no second law of thermodynamics, there’s no entropy, there’s no permanent decay or deterioration. 1800 years before the German physicist Rudolf Clausius came up with a definition of entropy, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews had it figured out, putting it this way: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. You, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the works of Your hands; they will perish, but You remain; and they all will become old like a garment, and like a mantle You will roll them up; like a garment they will also be changed. But You are the same, and Your years will not come to an end” (Hebrews 1: 8a, 10-12).
When those who heard Peter preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, his hearers “were pierced to the heart” and asked, “What shall we do?” And Peter’s answer in the first century is the very same answer today in the 21st century: “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself” (Acts 2:38, 39).
If you are hearing that call this morning, either for the first time or in some fresh way, do not fail to respond. Cast your lot with God’s imperishable promises that never will fade away. God calls, we answer. His promises are certain, and all that now is fading away is replaced by an imperishable inheritance. If you’re waiting for a better opportunity to respond, stop waiting. Quoting Isaiah, Paul wrote, “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (II Corinthians 6:2). It was then, and it still is.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen