March 5, 2006
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Will you pray with me? God, may the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight. Amen.
As you know from the children’s message if you didn’t already, today is the first Sunday of Lent, the 40 days of preparation and discipline leading up to Easter. As most of you hopefully know, today is therefore also the first Sunday of Old South Church’s “The Church in the World” series. Before church today—and you can after it as well; it’s not too late to attend!—we learned about the early days of the Christian churches, back when they were just an underground lay movement. In those early days, Lent was a time of catechesis, that is, a time of teaching new converts the content and practice of the faith, and preparing them to be baptized on Easter. This year in Lent, I thought it might be helpful for us to learn about the content and practice of the faith from an outsider’s eyes, from the point of view of a pagan in the early centuries of the church.
So, some time around the second or third century of the Common Era, a man named Minucius Felix wrote a defense of the new and misunderstood religion of the Christians. It takes the form of a long argument between two friends, the Christian Octavius, after whom the work is named, and the pagan Caecilius, who opens the dialogue by quoting and paraphrasing the opinions that that reasonable, cosmopolitan, well-educated and upright subjects of the Roman Empire had of these strange new zealots.
Of the Christians, he says in part, “They have collected from the lowest possible dregs of society the more ignorant fools together with gullible women; they have thus formed a rabble of blasphemous conspirators, who with nocturnal assemblies, periodic fasts, and inhuman feasts seal their pact not with some religious ritual but with desecrating profanation…How amazingly stupid, unbelievably insolent they are....
“They recognize each other by secret marks and signs; hardly have they met when they love each other, throughout the world uniting in a veritable religion of lusts. Indiscriminately they call each other brother and sister, thus turning even ordinary fornication into incest by the intervention of these hallowed names. Such a pride does this foolish, deranged superstition take in its wickedness.
“There are also stories about the objects of their veneration: they are said to be a man who was punished with death as a criminal and the fell wood of his cross, thus providing suitable liturgy for the depraved fiends: they worship what they deserve…
“And, [Christians,] where is that god of yours who can help those who come to life again, but cannot help those who are alive?...
“The result is, you pitiable fools, that you have no enjoyment of life while you wait for the new life which you will never have.”1
End quote and, whoa. And I left out the really bad parts, the ones about orgiastic revels and infanticide and cannibalism. And this isn’t an exaggeration. This is how Roman citizens living around the Mediterranean accused the Christians of the first and second centuries of living and worshiping. One begins to understand why they were so fond of throwing us to the wild animals.
It’s overblown rhetoric, to be sure. It’s unfair and cruel, to be sure. But here’s the thing: I want to suggest to you that there’s a great deal of truth in Caecilius’s words.
For instance, the early Christians did refer to one another as brother and sister, and they did pass the peace of Christ by kissing one another on the lips in their worship. And they did it in the dark. You see, they gathered for worship in the dark to avoid persecution. So you can see why kissing one’s brother or sister on the mouth in the dark might raise suspicions of incest in an outsider who didn’t know what was going on. At the very least, this kissing and brother and sister talk are strange practices, especially if the members of your community are from radically different social and economic classes, as we think many early Christians were.
Another thing Caecilius was right about: when new members wanted to join the church, they did fast and pray through Lent. And then they did submit to baptism, as had Jesus, and they understood it as a death to their old lives and a rebirth into the new, as had Jesus. Which could be interpreted as a kind of murder, or perhaps suicide, by an outsider. And when they eventually started baptizing babies and talking about their death and rebirth, well…
And they did feast in great joy with one another, breaking many taboos about who could eat with whom, which was rather odd of them, and then they did eat a ritual meal made up of what its founder claimed was his body and his blood. Which could be interpreted by an outsider as a kind of cannibalism, if all that outsider had heard was rumors.
And they did venerate, and even came to worship, someone that had been—quite properly and according to the laws of the realm, mind you—executed by the state for sedition. They even came to call him by titles like “king” (as we heard in the book of Acts today) and “son of God” and “lord and savior”, which, of course, were titles that belonged to Caesar and Caesar alone. So I guess they were seditious, too, in some ways a threat to the very order of the Roman state, and that was another good reason for a character like Caecilius, clearly a beneficiary of that order, to dislike them. Plus there was this strange thing: they looked at an execution device, a tool of the state designed to inflict painful death on wrongdoers and strike fear into the hearts of all who saw it, they looked at it, and refused to be afraid. They looked at, even went up on it themselves, and sang praises to God.
So I have to say, though Caecilius got a few things wrong and was perhaps a little overzealous in his attacks, I think he was right: the first Christians were weird.
And you and I, my sisters and brothers? Well, you and I:-we still worship and sing praise to Jesus, an executed criminal, and hang the means of his death in our sanctuaries and around our necks and in our homes
-as a foundation of our whole life together, and because he submitted to it first, we regularly send adults and infants to watery graves so that they may join our community, and name it resurrection
-we eat bread and drink juice, and tell the story of that same Jesus, who claimed that what we’re eating is his body and blood…and then we claim that doing so makes us, this gathered people, his body, too
-in a world of rugged individualism, we gather week after week to proclaim the redemption to be found in beloved community
-we seek to love and be united with our enemies in a world where division and violence are the norm
-we believe that someone died over two thousand years ago, then came back to life, and that we can still be in touch with him and guided by him through prayer and meditation—and so seek to order our entire lives around that contact
-while the world around us demands patriotism and lives nationalism and while battles rage across the imaginary lines between “us” and “them”, we name Christ our ruler and the realm of God our native land, and all God’s creation a gift to be cherished
So you and I, my sisters and brothers? Well, you may not have noticed it, because for quite a while there, Christians were The Man, the establishment, and the vast majority of those you met on the street here in these eastern United States were worshiping in the same kinds of ways. You might not have noticed it, because in some ways it’s easy to miss, but I have to say, you and I are pretty weird, too.
And why? In this day and age, when it is no longer expected here in the United States that you go to church, when, as in the early days, those who do what we do are more often than not looked down upon or askance at by our peers, why do we do these strange things? Why do we persist dunking one another under the water and turning the world upside down and calling someone other than Ceasar, someone other than war, someone other than profit or property or coolness, the sovereign of our lives?
There are, of course, at least as many answers to that question as there are people here today, but I want to suggest to you that most of them boil down to this: we’re here because we’ve tried living this weird Christian life, and we know it works.
The first Christians believed that baptism was not just an initiation into the church, but into the realm of God as well, and that the church was an outpost, a colony, of that realm in this one. Those who decided to move to that colony to live weird Christian lives did so because they’d caught a glimpse of the realm of God that lies just behind, just under, just inside, just this close to the “normal” reality. Through a tear in the heavens or in a heart, through a voice from beyond or from the mouth of another, they experienced the realm of God, and knew there was no going back. They—we—moved into, were reborn into, this colony of God’s strange realm, where the first are last and death is new birth and fear becomes hope and God wears the faces of sinners, where the world is turned upside down. We moved here because we, somewhere, sometime, caught a glimpse of the realm of God, and because once that happens, you can’t help but see it everywhere:-in bread and cup, which is the power of the earth
-in the ones to our right and left and the ones far beyond our walls, who are the power for change
-in water and rebirth, which is the power of life
-in state torture devices made empty of victims and transformed into symbols of hope, which is the power of resurrection,
-in the outstretched hands and open arms of brothers and sisters, which are the power for redemption
-in the nearness and the overwhelming love of the God who created us, which is the power for salvation
As we journey together through this Lent, I invite you to pay attention to the weirdness of what we believe and what we do here in church. Pay attention to the strange, the counter-to-the-culture ways Christians have ordered their lives together through the centuries as we learn together about the church in the world. Pay attention to our strange, glorious, utterly un-normal God. Pay attention to the strange, the grace-filled life to which God is calling you through the life and death of Jesus Christ, through the life and death of you.
Caecilius said in derision of the first weird Christians and their weird God, “they worship what they deserve.” This Lent, let us make it so. Amen and amen.
1. The “Octavius of Minucius Felix,” from The Octavius of Minucius Felix, ed. G.W. Clarke. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1974.
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