Texts: Dan 12:1-3; Heb 10:11-25; Mk 13:1-8
In addition to these things, Christians in America worry about the survival of the Church. It can sound pretty dire. We are being told that students aren’t allowed to pray in schools anymore; the Ten Commandments are being removed from municipal buildings, we hear of wars and rumors of wars against us and our favorite holidays.
The fear that drives these sorts of spectacles is real, but it’s not because Christians are being persecuted (because we’re not) or because the Church is dying (because it isn’t). What is really scaring is us the Church is losing its place of privilege and power in society. Since Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 388, the Church has enjoyed great privilege and status in the surrounding culture. As recently as 50 years ago, church attendance was considered a central tenant of good citizenship. Now that that is changing, those of us who have benefitted from the Church’s influence and privilege are beginning to worry about the future of our beloved institution.
The increasing numbers of people with no religious affiliation (the “Nones”) and those who see the Church as irrelevant or even harmful (the “Dones”) may frighten us. We look at the fate of Christianity in Europe and fear that at the current rate, the Church will soon fade from existence all together. With the unnamed disciple, we say to Jesus, “Look, Teacher! What large stones and large buildings!” and hope that the foundation and edifices we've built will be able to protect Western Christianity from the ravages of time and change. Instead, Jesus says to us, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” And even as these words ring in our ears, Jesus looks at us and says, “do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end isn’t hear yet there is more still to come.”
It is important for us to understand what is happening to Western Christianity. These things are not the result of God’s judgement. Christianity is not dwindling because we have failed and are being punished, but because true Christianity isn’t compatible with social prestige and political power. Christianity must topple in order to “give birth” to what is coming after it. The Institutional Church must pass away to make room for the reign of God. Of course Western Christianity is fading away; all human institutions eventually decay. Throughout history, entire civilizations have risen and fallen. As Western Christianity fades, however, the Church endures.
The Church has been from the bottom to the top of the political power spectrum, withstanding everything from lethal persecution to imperialism. In spite of everything, it is still here. When the Temple in Jerusalem fell, God endured, and so did the Church. When Jesus died, he rose again, and so did the Church. Whatever else may die, God will endure, and so will the Church. Enduring does not necessarily mean remaining the same, however. The Church has thrived through the ages because it adapted to meet the needs of the times and proclaim the gospel to those who needed to hear it. Do not be misled: change is coming; but rather than the change we fear, it is the change for which we have always hoped.
We believe that, as the Psalmist says, “the earth is the LORD’S and everything that is in it; the world and those who live there.” (Ps 24.1) We believe that the Holy Spirit is actively at work establishing the reign of God on earth in and through the Church, and that this reign is opposed by the powers of the world and even by our own sinful selves. Is it any wonder then, that its coming should be accompanied by tension and conflict? It may look like the world is going to hell in a handbasket, but Jesus reassures us that this is not a change for the worse, but for the better.
We know this to be true because we have experienced it in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and because we continue to experience it every day in our own lives. Each week, when we come to this table, we taste the eternal reign of God as we hold in our mouths the flesh and blood of Christ, the firstborn of the dead. He was killed for opposing the Temple and its authorities, but instead of being defeated, death became his victory. Just as he said, the Temple is now a pile of rubble while he himself lives. In fact, Paul writes that “God has highly exalted him, given him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that he is Lord to the glory of the Father.” (Phil 2.9-11)
This is the name we bear: we are Christ’s people—Christians. In our lives and in our deaths, in our successes and in our failures, in our every breath and word and action, we bear witness to the one who rose from the dead. This is not because we are so good at it, or because people will listen to us, or because we deserve it, but because Christ has claimed us as his own. We have been washed in the waters of baptism and sent out to be God’s living message to the world—the walking, talking gospel.
So, when we hear of wars and rumors of wars that threaten our lives or our religion, when those who come in the name of Christ lead so many astray, what are we Christ-people to do? The answer is the same for us as it was for Peter and Andrew, James and John, the same as it was for the first readers of Mark’s gospel: we hold fast to the hope we first received from Christ and live as he taught us, because living in this way—even through tragedy and disaster—rescues us from fear because our hope is no longer in our own survival or success, nor in the strength or grandeur of buildings and institutions, but in the grace of God which endures all things.
Make no mistake: the reign of Christ is coming. It is so real that we can taste it, chew it and swallow it, and it nourishes us. When the news headlines terrify us, when we fear that Christianity is slowly becoming irrelevant, when the voices of the fear harass us with lies or mislead us with false hopes, don’t let them spook you.
Live as you have been shown. Listen to Jesus’ words: “Do not be alarmed. These are but the birthpangs of what is to come.” We gather together here, as the author of Hebrews encourages us to do (Heb 10.25), to remember the good news that God’s reign is on its way; we gather here to eat and drink to keep up our strength for what lies ahead; we gather here to be reminded to go tell others where they might find a bit of bread and wine and maybe even a bit of hope in the middle of a cold and fearful world. We gather here to encourage one another. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.