Two Kinds of Christians

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation on April 3, 2016, by Christopher L. Webber.

I had a seminary professor who said there are two kinds of sermons: one kind in which you proclaim the Gospel and therefore begin, “In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” and another kind in which you are less definitive, more opening a discussion in which other viewpoints are possible, and then you might begin as I did today: Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer.

So what I want to do today is not proclaim the gospel, but explore some issues and invite a response because there are issues we need to think about and I don’t think I have the last word on the subject. The apostles said, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” Where are the stress lines today between God and human authority? How do we serve God in the political world?

I’d like to begin by suggesting that there are two kinds of Christians in this country and the difference between them is sharper than ever before. I say “in this country” because I think the difference exists elsewhere but not as sharply as here because our history is unique. Two kinds of Christians came here. You might call them “establishment” and “dissenters.”

Massachusetts Bay was settled by Christians fleeing the English establishment. They were the dissenters, uncomfortable with an established church. But they didn’t want freedom for everyone to dissent, they wanted a church where everyone thought the way they did or would get out as Roger Williams did to Rhode Island and Ann Hutchinson did to Connecticut and still others did again and again moving on to the frontier as long as there was a frontier, but always dissenting, always questioning, always valuing the individual over the larger society.

Then there were the Christians who were the establishment, who came to Virginia, for example, and recreated as nearly as they could the English establishment with a Governor in place of the king and a church supported by taxes. One kind of Christian worried most about individual freedom; the other kind cared more about an orderly world where everyone knew his or her place. Carried to its logical extreme establishment Christians saw no harm in slavery since the slaves also had their place, clearly established.

Carried to its extreme, the New England pattern was not only willing to expel the Roger Williamses and Ann Hutchinsons but saw no harm in killing witches; they were looking for a pure society where everyone agreed with everyone else.

You could look no further than Ronald Reagan as a prototype of the dissenting model. Reagan was brought up in a small mid-western church whose pastor frequently cited the Puritan heritage and the shining city on a hill, stressing the individual, dedicated to limited government.

On the other hand, Franklin Roosevelt would exemplify the establishment figure: Episcopalian, Harvard educated, putting programs in place for the needs of the whole society. There are two kinds of Christians in this country and have been from the beginning, but the differences between them it seems to me are sharper than ever before. Oddly, the difference is sharpest right now within one of our political parties rather than between them. Republicans see their party divided between the so-called establishment on the one hand and the radical individualists on the other. It’s the radical individualists, oddly enough, who are called “conservatives” in the media. But if words still mean anything it’s the establishment who are the conservatives. People who want to keep things as they are are the real conservatives. Hillary Clinton is really much more of a conservative than Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders who want to make radical changes and both of them are more conservative than Donald Trump who wants to change almost everything. He’s the ultimate radical, the ultimate individualist.

But it’s the people called conservative in the media who are individualists first of all, people who want as much freedom from the state as they can possibly get. So they reject programs like social security and the affordable care act and so on. They don’t want the state involved in their lives – with the single odd exception of abortion and birth control where they do want the state to make the rules and limit people’s freedom. It’s not logical that the same people who inveigh against the government controlling our lives would work to control people’s lives where it matters most – but logic is not their strong point.

Now these are obviously political issues, but they are also theological issues, most obviously in relation to issues of birth control and abortion. But social security and affordable care and the use of torture and nuclear weapons and immigration are theological issues also. They have to do with the working out of the great command: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. They have to do with the question Jesus was asked: Who is my neighbor? Is my neighbor a Syrian refugee or a Mexican immigrant or a young woman unable to face a pregnancy or a Gulf War veteran living on the street with post traumatic stress disorder? Who is my neighbor? What is my responsibility to my neighbor and to the state and to God? We fight these things out as matters of politics, but if we are Christians, the division is first of all theological and it runs between our churches and within our churches and it goes back to our origins in dissent and establishment and the tendency of one side to stress individual freedom and the other side to stress social concerns. You can see it reflected in the web pages of different churches. The biggest Baptist church in Dallas, for example, says, we believe “that God desires a personal relationship with every individual . . . ” but Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, talks about its “social justice endeavors” and the Church of the Incarnation says, “We live and share the Good News of Jesus Christ through worship, education, fellowship, pastoral care, and service to the world” There’s nothing in either Episcopal statement about a personal relationship with Jesus and nothing in the Baptist statement about society or justice.

Of course, as an Anglican I would also want to say there’s truth in both positions. God does desire a communionpersonal relationship with each individual, but God also draws us together in communities and calls on us to build up communities in which we take responsibility for each other.

Now, I’m saying all this because we had a reading this morning that put all this in the starkest possible terms. It tells us how the apostles were brought before the authorities in the early days after the resurrection. They were told that they were making trouble; they were told that they were creating divisions; they were told that they were disturbing the peace of the community; and they were told they should stop it before the situation got any worse. They were told they were making trouble, but “the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority.’”

Well, I’m an Anglican and I understand where the authorities were coming from. How can you have a peaceful community if individuals can all respond to their own particular vision without regard for its impact? But as an Anglican I also have to ask how can you have a just community if God’s will is neglected? How do you balance out the establishment desire for stability and the radical desire for freedom? What does God ask of us in terms of society, in terms of our social obligations?

I’ve just finished reading a 600-page biography of Abraham Lincoln and, of course, it walked me back through the Civil War, the catastrophe that re-shaped this nation and you can see it again in terms of those two perspectives on human life: the slave-holding south where some thought it was perfectly fine to LincolnMemorialStatueworship God and establish a personal relationship with Jesus while at the same time holding other people in slavery and the abolitionist north where many others felt that slavery was inconsistent with God’s will to create a just society.

Well, that was then and this is now but the same fault lines still exist. Slavery may be gone, but that same fundamental division haunts us still and I think we need to be very clear about the source of the problem and try to work through it in faithfulness to the risen Christ who calls us into a personal relationship with himself and a loving relationship with our neighbor. We need to ask how we are called to respond both as individuals and as a church and we need to do whatever we can to help our friends and neighbors see what the issue is and try to approach it insofar as possible without anger and hostility and division.

I’m sure you get as tired as I do of the way the media seems to portray Christians as narrow-minded, negative people – against immigration, against health care, against so many things and angry about it – and then the media ignore the maybe quieter work going on by more traditional Christians – catholic and liturgical Christians: Anglican, Lutheran, Roman, Orthodox and others – to reach out to the homeless and welcome the newcomer and act the way we think Jesus would want us to act, changing not just individual lives but the whole society. Now you can call that “establishment” if you want but I think that misses the point. Peter and John were not speaking for the establishment in this morning’s reading but neither were they speaking as solitary individuals responding to God on the basis of individual conviction. They didn’t say, “I must obey God,” but “we” must obey. I think that’s important. They are acting as a church, as a baptismsociety within a society, as Christians caught in a bind, as we often are, between dissent and establishment and having to make a choice.

It’s worth noticing how the Collect for this Sunday deals with these issues: “Grant” it says “that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith . . .” Do you see what that does? It grounds our discipleship in our membership. It’s talking about the consequences of our baptisms and it says we have been reborn. It says we have been baptized into a personal relationship with Jesus, yes, but into the fellowship of Christ’s Body, into a corporate relationship with each other, and it’s in that body and with that body that we are to show forth what we profess, that we are to act as if we believe what we say, that our faith makes a difference, that our love for our neighbor needs to be acted out and can be because in Christ, drawn into a personal relationship with Jesus as our Savior, we are members of his body and never acting alone.

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