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The Apocalypse for Now 4: A Heritage of Hope

May 6, 2013

“The Apocalypse for Now 4: A Heritage of Hope” Revelation 7:1-17 © 5.5.13 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

On May 21, 1789, the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Of course, such a body did not appear full-grown, like Minerva from the head of Zeus. Rather, there were many, many Presbyterians who labored to give it birth. Like the charter members of the Southampton, Long Island church, who had founded a congregation in 1640, seven years before the Westminster Confession was written in England. Or the Irish missionary Francis Makemie, who worked to begin churches in the colonies, earning himself the title “Father of American Presbyterianism.” The minister and educator William Tenent, whose “Log College” became Princeton University. Jonathan Edwards, whose preaching and writing helped spark the Great Awakening. Samuel Davies, who assisted in organizing the first presbytery in Virginia and began the expansion of the church into the South. Finally, John Witherspoon, the only active minister to sign the Declaration of Independence.

The days leading up to the first Assembly were not without controversy. The old saying came true: “Presbyterians are born to schism like sparks to fly up from flame.” Controversy surrounded the adoption of the Westminster Confession and catechisms as the standard for the American church. Factions calling themselves “Old Side” and “New Side” split over their attitudes toward the religious fervor of the Great Awakening in 1741 and remained apart for seventeen years.

Back in those days, most Christians in the nation belonged to a Presbyterian, Episcopal or Congregational church. Times have changed, of course. Those denominations have lost their dominance on the American scene to the extent that they could now be called “offline” rather than “mainline.” Today, according to one estimate, there are more Muslims in America than members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Episcopal Church combined. Our denomination lost 22% of its membership between 2001 and 2011, the last year for which statistics are available. We had 675 fewer congregations in 2011 than in 2001, with a median size of 93. Someone has predicted that if the current rate of decline continues, there will be no Presbyterian Church (USA) by 2046. One right-wing website predicted last year: “The denomination’s comparative statistics reveal an unrelenting march toward extinction unless—and this is always possible—God reforms it with a Great Awakening scale” (“The Aquila Report”).

Of course, American religion in general is in crisis. The recent comments of Roman Catholic theologian Leonardo Boff apply to the US as well as worldwide. He said his church was “in ruins” and had “lost its respect for what is sacred,” but thought that the new pope was the man to fix the situation (note 1). The Religious Right retains its dominance in churches and in politics, but I think they see even their power being diminished. Hence the increasingly extreme measures they propose and the louder and louder complaints about alleged infringement on religious liberty. The biggest bully on the playground is also the person who is the most afraid and insecure.

And course, as I have noted more than once, about 20% of Americans, many of them young people, claim no religious affiliation. As theologian Marcus Borg has observed in a recent book, “[M]any young people have little or no interest in Christianity. Though some are enthusiastic members of churches that proclaim biblical inerrancy and literalism, the majority find these ideas literally unbelievable. They cannot see how one particular religion is the only true religion or that its language must be interpreted literally and absolutely” (Speaking Christian).

Whatever our age, religious affiliation or lack thereof, we are all affected by the great divide in our nation. As one blogger has put it: “Almost 150 years after the end of the Civil War, when it comes to basic issues and fundamental values, America is still split right down the middle” (note 2). The formerly mainline churches experience the fracture at least as a disagreement about what constitutes faithfulness to the gospel. Conservative writer Mark Roberts commented in 2008: ““What some people folks see as heresy and tragedy, others receive as liberation and hope. What some see as cause for grief and repentance, others experience as a reason for thanks and celebration. It’s hard to imagine a Christian group less unified than the PCUSA at this time.”

So what is to be done? There are a number of options, including hand-wringing, retrenchment, finding a scapegoat, leaving, cutting back, restructuring, and on and on. Or we could reclaim and rediscover what is distinctive about the Presbyterian Church (USA). We could be faithful to and proud of who we are.

There are some clues in Revelation about the shape of that sort of faithfulness. It’s not too much of a leap to claim that the seven churches in Asia were facing some of the same problems as the historically mainline churches. They were, for example, struggling with their relationship with the culture and divided in their response to the hot button issues of their day. They were a minority faith in their communities; their neighbors weren’t sure who they were or what they believed. There were some things they were doing right, but also plenty they were doing wrong. Sometimes genuine zeal and spiritual fervor were lacking; there were factions and disagreements, with predictions of dire consequences for following this or that teaching or course of action.

The prophet John tried both to encourage and challenge the churches with his letters from the Christ of his Lord’s Day vision. Then he took them into a heavenly throne room, where there was no doubt who was in charge. He reminded them that in worship we gain a new perspective, the long and broad view, that transforms the world, even in the midst of suffering. Rome wouldn’t last. Its magnates and generals and rich landowners could not stand before the power of God. Threats from within and without, depicted by the four horsemen we met last week, would be the undoing of the empire. The arrogant demand of Caesar for ultimate loyalty, even worship, would be silenced.

Now in the morning’s reading, the author gives us three essentials for keeping such assurance and hope alive. See if you think they can help us Presbyterians as we sometimes wonder about the future.

First, John says, remember your identity. You are “sealed” by God. In other words, you are claimed body and soul, all you are and have, by the One who sits on the throne, the Sovereign of the universe. Presbyterian practice and proclamation at its best has always expressed our conviction that God alone is sovereign and Jesus Christ is Head of the Church. We have refused to regard anything human and historical as a timeless absolute, whether it’s a form of government or an affirmation of faith or even the Bible. We have believed and demonstrated that a sovereign God continues to act as he will, with the Spirit blowing uncontrollably and unpredictably. We don’t regard any nation or economic system or gender or race or class as chosen by and specially favored by God. Yes, God uses fallible documents and institutions and religions and the people who wrote and founded them to his glory and to proclaim his truth. But nothing human is ever ultimate. That honor belongs to God alone. He has put his seal on our heads and hearts, that is, on our thinking and our feeling, and claimed us as his own. To no one and nothing can we, may we, give the worship belonging only to our Lord.

John, then, reminds his churches that they will survive, even prevail, when they remember to whom they belong. Next, he shows them that they are part of something so big they can scarcely imagine it. In his vision, he sees 144,000 who are sealed, coming from every tribe of Israel. Of course, that’s not a literal number. Instead, it suggests the wholeness of the people of God, twelve tribes multiplied by twelve apostles by 1000, the largest single unit known in the ancient world. Today, we might use a googolplex plus one. A googolplex is 1 followed by 10100 zeros.

What the prophet sees is a great multitude no one could count, from all over the planet, standing before the Lamb. Did you catch that? Standing. We’re reminded of last week, as we noticed that frightened, judged people cried out “who can stand?” Here are folk confident in the presence of God, made holy by the Lamb, and celebrating victory. You are part of this company of the saints, John says to his churches. You are those who conquer by suffering love and stand in God’s presence. You contribute by your service and sacrifice to the building of the heavenly city that will come down to earth. You matter, your voices are heard, and you are not alone.

The Presbyterian way of thinking at its best has been shaped by such convictions. Our current form of government seeks to be guided by God’s mission in the world and to affirm the ways each congregation and Christian works for God’s glory in a particular place. One of our historic principles is that we are connected with each other, and the action of one is the action of all. So when the session here in Amory makes a decision, the ruling elders are deciding for the whole denomination. Every congregation holds its property in trust for the entire PC(USA), and such property is a tool for the mission of Jesus in the world (G-4.02). From the session to the General Assembly, and across the country, PC(USA) councils are linked by their common affirmation of the faith contained in our confessions and of the principles of our polity. We don’t think of ourselves as the only true church, the only one who has it right. Instead, the body of Christ is at its best when all the parts work together, as Christians of various traditions join together in mission. And we know that we are joined not merely with our contemporaries, but stand on the shoulders of those people great and small, known and unknown, who have borne witness to Christ over the years. The Church transcends time and space, geography and gender, left and right, race and class and whatever else may divide us in this world. We are part of something larger, a googolplex plus one of those who are sealed and sanctified by God through Jesus Christ. We belong to the great enterprise of God; we are working by his Spirit to help him fulfill his dream and his vision. We worship a God who has been our help in ages past and is our hope for years to come.

Finally, not only does John recommend to his audience then and now that they remember their identity. Nor is it enough that they are convinced of their part in something larger. They are to trust the providence of God or actually, the God who provides. This great sovereign One is a compassionate shepherd, a shelter in the heat, a giver of food and drink, a guide through the barrenness.

Now and again, we hear the situation of the PC(USA) described as a wilderness wandering or exile. The images those terms evoke are aimlessness, pain, loss, doubt, and/or displacement. Theresa Cho, a second generation Korean-American pastor, wrote about her sense of things in February of this year: “There is a lot of talk about division, loss, dying, perishing, wondering, and revisioning. In some ways, we may feel that we are wandering in the wilderness and wondering what it is going to be like when we get out.

“My husband and I have been working in small congregations our whole ministry career. Every day, every week, and every year, we are faced with the challenge of how to make church relevant in the community; how to make church healthier; and how to move the church to change with the changing demographics. This is reality. This is the wilderness. This is ministry. For smaller congregations, there isn’t a sense of perishing because the hey day left over 50 years ago. You have to HAVE something to feel like you are LOSING something.

She continues: “The difference is that it’s not only the smaller churches that are wandering the wilderness. Now, it’s the larger churches wondering what’s next. It’s the presbyteries, synods, and the whole denomination wondering what’s next.”

But Cho does not see the wilderness as a place of despair or the wandering as aimless. She concludes: “And all I can say is ‘Come on in, the water is just fine.’ This is a wonderful opportunity to collectively reimagine, recreate, and refocus what ministry can be TOGETHER.

“We aren’t perishing. We just need some readjustments” (capitalization hers; note 3).

The wilderness wanderings were for the Hebrews a time of figuring out their identity and developing their sense of belonging together. The Exile was a period of extraordinary creativity, in which great prophets flourished, the scriptures were edited, and new forms of worship evolved. Maybe this time of marginalization and slippery slope living is for the PC(USA) a time to see things afresh, as Cho suggests. For example, the denomination has committed to start 1001 worshipping communities in a decade. Not traditional churches, but groups of people who gather many places. As a church official put it: “We need to acknowledge that many of our faith communities are in the process of becoming. I believe we need openness to fresh movements of God’s Holy Spirit, where people are gathering in sushi bars, tattoo parlors, dorm rooms, living rooms and boardrooms.

“If we truly hope to reach the next generation with the Good News of Christ… we not only need our existing churches to flourish, but we also need brand new places for people to gather and worship and grow and be sent out to change their communities” (note 4).

Will 1001 in 10 restore health to the PC(USA) and ensure our future? No one has a crystal ball. But I know this with certainty: God works in ways we don’t expect to bring hope and healing and restoration, to guide people and institutions to springs of the water of life. And if we can’t predict what God will do, neither can we control his work. Our calling is to be open to the creative movement of his Spirit, to follow our Lord as sheep follow the shepherd.

When Katrina made it to Starkville, she was still a Category 1 hurricane. We escaped major damage, but the fig tree at one corner of our house was a shambles. We thought we had lost it. But no; it eventually started coming back and grew so large again that we had to prune it and have had to cut off large branches again recently. What we thought we had lost became green and productive again.

The fig tree is a rich biblical symbol of the people of God. I wonder what God will do after the storms of controversy and division with the particular tree known as the PC(USA).

Note 1

Note 2 Lee Siegel, “Memo to the South…”

Note 3

Note 4 Roger Dermody in “1001 in 10”


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