In the late 19th Century the American church dug up a decades old argument that had been buried under the mud and muck of the American Civil War.
By this time, the scientific revolution, complete with its insistence on verifiable proof for all claims to knowledge, had multiplied its influence over every last academic department of our nation’s universities, including the departments of religion. Which presented the church with a challenge: What happens when archeological discovery claims to disprove some detail of a beloved Biblical story, like the destruction of the city walls at Jericho, for instance? Is it possible that Jesus didn’t personally speak every word written by each of the four evangelists in the canonical gospels? That like Shakespeare, other people wrote things in Jesus’ name, and those things were then included in the canon as authentic sayings, even though Jesus never said them, leaving historians and theologians the worthy task of dividing those red-letter words into piles: Definitely Jesus, Maybe Jesus, Not Jesus.
After the war, these questions re-emerged, and the American church, already divided between North and South, also began to split into camps referred to as Fundamentalists and Modernists. It was the Fundamentalists who picked the team names—insisting that there are five fundamental Christian beliefs which must be held in order to be a truly Christian person: 1) The inerrancy of scripture, 2) The literal truth of biblical miracles, including creation, 3) The virgin birth, 4) a particular way of understanding Jesus’ death known as Penal Substitution, and 5) the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
While you don’t have to be anti-science to hold these beliefs, it is clear that the establishment of Fundamentalism as a Christian movement was a reaction against the effects of allowing scientific inquiry to probe the claims of Christianity. And you can see where this is going: Fundamentalists see the scientific community and the pursuit of progress as the enemy of faith, corrupting the hearts and minds of those easily swayed Modernists.
Modernists see Fundamentalists as hopelessly naive and backwards, unenlightened, and a hindrance to the progress and relevance of the true faith.
It is worth pausing to note here that Princeton Seminary in the late 19th and early 20th century was decidedly fundamentalist. The doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture was formulated by Princeton theologian, Charles Hodge. And so, as it turns out, this Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy provides a perfect example of how perception often becomes reality, even if the reality at first was far more complex.
But over time, the perception that all Fundamentalists were anti-intellectual came to dominate cultural consciousness, and as they retreat further into their own camps, abandoning anything associated with the other, both fundamentalists and modernists begin more fully to embody those stereotypes and caricatures dreamed up by the other side.
Either/Or thinking tends to have that effect on people and cultures.
Eventually the scientific method ceases to be up for debate, and it becomes virtually impossible to hold any shred of cultural credibility in this country while identifying as a fundamentalist; the very word was too inextricably bound up with anti-intellectualism.
And so the more culturally savvy fundamentalists decided that it was time for a re-branding. They rebranded themselves with an old 18th term that had biblical roots: “Evangelicals.”
Today, Evangelicalism encompasses a far wider range of Christian belief and practice than Fundamentalism ever did … it is not accurate to say that all Evangelicals are Fundamentalists, nor are they all anti-intellectual, nor socially conservative … though each of those categories has its place within evangelicalism. But again, perception becomes reality, and for the last 40 years or so, the loudest voices of evangelicalism have been the most extreme: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jim and Tami Faye Baker … now we’ve got Falwell Jr., and Franklin Graham, and what’s his name who debated Bill Nye the Science guy about the age of the universe. Not only have these loudest evangelical voices stuck to their guns on the refutation of scientific consensus, but many have done so appearing to be little more than a religious front for a far right wing political agenda.
For mainliners like the PCUSA, these associations are problematic. We have always been a thinking faith, not fearful of scientific discovery, but embracing it as a deepening understanding of creation and therefore, of its Creator. The marriage of far right politics to the faith is problematic, not because we’re a left-wing church—we’re not—but because we are a Kingdom of God church, and dogged allegiance to any political party is in opposition to the gospel of Jesus Christ—but more on that later. All of the problematic associations with evangelicals and evangelicalism have given birth to yet another problem for the mainline church—namely that we have ceased to permit ourselves to use the word—to understand our faith as being in any way evangelical—and consequentially have largely abandoned the Christian task of evangelism. Which is why the name and aim of this Sermon Series is: Take Back The E-Word.
I’ve now spent nearly as much time introducing the series as I normally would preaching the text, but it is important, I think that we understand the history before we simply accept as gospel truth that evangelism looks like that, and evangelical Christians vote like that, and so we are not, or I am not an evangelical.
The word evangelical means “to proclaim the good news” … so for the next five weeks we mainliners will think creatively about how we might reclaim the good news of Jesus for our own, thoughtful, compassionate, and accepting Christian faith, and further, how we go about proclaiming that good news to one another, to our families, neighbors, strangers, even enemies—most of whom, if you asked them, would gladly receive a little bit good news from those who would dole it out!
Before we turn to our reading from the book of Acts, let’s join in a word of prayer.
Prayer for Illumination
God of all who doubt and believe,
by the gift of your Spirit enable us to hear with our ears,
to see with our eyes, and to touch with our hands
your Word of life—Jesus Christ—our Lord and our God. Amen.
New Testament Reading Acts 4:32-35
32 Now the whole group of those who believed
were of one heart and soul,
and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions,
but everything they owned was held in common.
33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony
to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,
and great grace was upon them all.
34 There was not a needy person among them,
for as many as owned lands or houses
sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.
35 They laid it at the apostles' feet,
and it was distributed to each as any had need.
Sermon The Evangel Effect
Our first sermon in this series, which is really a mini-sermon, is titled The Evangel Effect, the idea being that when the Gospel has been proclaimed and heard and believed, it effects an identifiable change in the life of those believers.
According to our theological forerunner, John Calvin, the marks of the True Church are that the Word is rightly proclaimed and heard, and the sacraments rightly administered. Wherever these things happen, Calvin says, there is the church. The gospel of John similarly states that it was written in order that we might believe … And much Christian theology and identity has developed around these activities—proclaiming, hearing, participating in sacred rituals, and believing.
What often goes unstated, though, is that any change in what we believe—not to mention any encounter with the sacred—should necessarily effect a change in how we live. If a trustworthy medical professional proclaims that I have diabetes, and I hear and believe her, then I will start meticulously monitoring my sugar intake in a way that would have seemed crazy just days before. So to, the life of a new believer may well have seemed crazy to that person just days before they believed.
Later followers of Calvin would add a third mark to the list, which made explicit what Calvin had implied—the upright administration of ecclesiastical discipline, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished. And while we modern Presbyterians don’t like the sound of administrating church discipline so much, we still take from it the idea that the sacramental community that proclaims and hears and believes Christ is accountable also to live in and
move through the world in an identifiable, Christ-like way.
The book of Acts paints a picture of the church as it develops this identifiable way of living in the wake of the Easter Evangel—the good news that death did not hold Jesus, and so neither can it hold we who cling to him—the good news that God vindicates the faithful even though the world may crucify them—the good news that Jew and Gentile alike and together are the beneficiaries of God’s gift of resurrection life.
This is not simply a nice sentiment to be expressed, or doctrine to which the disciples give mental ascent, but this good news is actually generative … creative … it brings forth something real—something new—in the form of a community.
This is why in the New Testament, the community of faith in Jesus is referred to as the New Creation of God.
The Church exists as the product of God’s definitive act of evangelism.
When the gospel of Jesus Christ is the cause, the Evangel Effect is a community of diverse peoples who are of one heart and soul, freed by this gift of unity from the impulse to compete for resources or status.
How are we to compete with others when we believe that the label other is no longer relevant—that we are all one?
And so rather than accumulating personal wealth in order to keep up with, or ahead of the Jones, Christians voluntarily redistributed their wealth so that the Jones wouldn’t go hungry tonight, and the Smith’s could repair their AC unit before the heatwave hit, confident that their new community would provide just as well for them if ever they were in need.
This is the new creation of Good News. It is a third way, neither that of domination, as in Romans Empire, nor of victimhood, as in the occupied Israel, but of unity in our assurance of the grace and triumph of God.
Now, it is true that the Church doesn’t always look exactly like it is depicted in Acts—the Church of Christ in every age has failed, at times, to inhabit and exhibit the New Creation. But by the grace of God alone, the church does not and cannot cease to be the New Creation—we cannot cease to be resurrection people; a resurrection community—for we exist solely as the effect, in a cause & effect relationship. We could no more refuse to be what God has made us to be than a billiard ball struck by another could refuse to move.
At times we are the New Creation of God in spite of ourselves—we fight internally for status, and hoard our resources, separating into factions by ethnicity, age, and political affiliation, insistent that those Christians are simply of different heart (by which we inevitably mean ‘lesser’); those Christians of different soul; of a different mind.
In these times the church betrays the God who gave it life.
But God does not betray the church.
The believers are of one heart and soul and mind, sharing all things and distributing to any who have need, because that is who God is in Christ, and by grace, Christ is who God has made us to be. Church, we exist by the good news of Jesus, so that we may be the good new of Jesus. May it be so. Amen.