Dean Lloyd: “The Church’s DNA”
Not long ago I found myself inside a time capsule propelling me back through the centuries. The place was the city of Rome, where you walk through the streets sensing that the years are falling away to the point that you half expect a gladiator to come around the corner ready for battle. Friends had told me not to miss seeing a site that isn’t a big feature in the tour books— the Church of San Clemente—not far from the Colosseum—but it was really something.
When you see San Clemente what first strikes you is the elaborate fussiness of an 18th century baroque church. But then you look up over the altar and see mosaics that belong to another world entirely, and you notice Romanesque arches almost hidden on the side—both of which tell you that you’re actually in an 11th or 12th century church. Then you go down to the lower level and you see that older church, and in it are frescoes and tombstones from a 5th or 6th century church. A few minutes ago you were walking through 21st century Rome, and now you can almost feel the presence of early Christians.
And then comes the biggest surprise… There’s a lower level yet, and there you are in a cave-like 1st or 2nd century temple to the pagan goddess Mithras—dark, haunting, with a small altar in the middle and stone benches for worshippers along the side. The early Christians must have gathered in places like this, you think—rough, mysterious, hidden from persecutors. And it feels as if you’re back at the beginning.
Listening to our first lesson from the Acts of the Apostles gives the same sense of a journey through the corridors of time. Squint your eyes, look far down the tunnel, and you can see a small group of followers of Jesus of Nazareth living what proved to be a revolutionary life. Acts describes it this way:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many signs and wonders were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need… And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
There it is—the earliest picture we have of the church. That’s the seed from which everything else has grown, from the smallest missionary outposts in Nigeria to the grand cathedrals of Europe. And so to see that earliest picture is to see the church’s DNA—the fundamental pattern of who we are and what we’re meant to be.
From those early seeds came what anthropologist René Girard has called the most important revolutionary movement in human history—a group of people, beginning with the Jews, who insisted on seeing history from the perspective not of power and conquest but of the victim, the least, and the lost. This movement, for all its mistakes and wrong-headedness, slowly came to grasp one fundamental truth—that behind the cosmos were not many warring petty gods but one, and that one was a God of immeasurable love, and that God had entered into history to guide a troubled human race toward lives of healing, justice, community, and hope.
And yet what those earliest Christians were doing seems so ordinary, doesn’t it? They worshipped, they studied the scriptures, they shared the Eucharist, they prayed. Just the sort of things we do around here. They took the time to listen, to care for each other, to do Christ’s work together. And they found that as they did these things their Lord was with them. And because they were together they sensed that there actually was a Good Shepherd for their lives, who was holding them and guiding them.
What we’re seeing here is the impact of Easter. Here were people in many ways like all of us gathered here today. They didn’t have all that much in common. They came from different parts of the city, from different social groups, perhaps some of them from different parts of the empire. It was as hard for them as it often is for us modern Americans to reach across the boundaries of income, class, racial or ethnic background to care for each other.
But something was happening to them when they were together. They sensed in their own lives a new strength, a depth and quality to their days.
Frederick Buechner, in one of his books of memoirs, describes his own rediscovery of the essence of the church as a result of going to Al-Anon meetings during a time of crisis for him and his family. There in another dark basement, 2,000 years away from those early Christian meetings, he saw in those Al-Anon meetings what the church is all about. He found a group of people ready to be available to him at any time of the day or night. He found an extraordinary openness even in the way they introduced themselves to each other at their meetings:
“I am Fred… I am Mary… I am Scotty,” you say, and each time the rest of the group responds with “Hi, Fred… Hi, Mary… Hi, Scotty.” Just by getting yourself there and saying that, you have told an important secret, which is that you cannot go it alone. You need help…
And they had slogans, too, the way churches do, which, Buechner says, “you can either dismiss as hopelessly simplistic or cling on to like driftwood in a stormy sea”:
One of them is ‘Let go and let God’—which is so easy to say and for people like me so far from easy to follow. Let go of the dark, which you wrap yourself in like a straitjacket, and let in the light. Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you—your children’s lives, the lives of your husband, your wife, your friends—because that is just what you’re powerless to do. Remember that the lives of others are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business because they all have God whether they use the word God or not. Even your own life is not your business. It is God’s business. Leave it to God.
The church has a mission much broader than Al-Anon alone. Our vocation is the spreading of Christ’s love across the city and around the world. But there in that basement Buechner glimpsed an important part of the DNA of our life—a group of people from anywhere who come together, to open their lives, to receive a power for living, and commit themselves to making a difference for the rest of the world around them. And he saw what people through the ages have seen—that this way of being can make all the difference.
Maybe you’ve heard about a book that came out a year or two ago by Malcolm Gladwell called The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Difference. Gladwell looks at all sorts of behavioral patterns in society and discusses how relatively small, insignificant things can have massive social results. He looks at activities such as smoking, recycling, using birth control, rioting, even leaving bad dinner parties. And he finds that many people will take up some of these behaviors only when they see a certain number of others doing them. There’s a tipping point, he says, when the patterns of behavior become socially acceptable or even encouraged, and then a massive shift takes place.
Small changes can make a huge difference—that’s his point. The fall of communism, the ethnic conflict in Eastern Europe, the movement of fashion styles through society—all are affected by tipping points.
Well, 2,000 years ago, Christians believe, human history reached a tipping point. When Christ was raised from the dead, God once and for all showed that evil and death and loss can never be the last word. And so instead of living lives of fear and selfishness and anger and violence, his followers began to live big, open, generous, risk-taking lives. And because of what they started, we are free to be people of peace and healing in a divided world, people who share what we have in a world of widening gaps between rich and poor.
And when we look at those early disciples we see how the epidemic of goodness began to spread. A handful of people began to live a different way. And it took off. Sociologist Rodney Stark has studied carefully just how it was the church grew so fast in its early years from a handful of defeated followers to, within 300 years, being the religion of the Roman Empire. After sifting through all the evidence, he figures that for Christianity to have swept the Roman Empire in three hundred years, it would have had to grow at a rate of 40% per decade, which would have meant small growth at first, but eventually a vast expansion.
And how did it happen? he asks. To sum up a vast amount of information, he says that it happened because Christians were more compassionate than the culture around them. In times of great social unrest, fear and disease in cities, and brutal pagan practices, Christians lived in communities that cared for each other, that welcomed the stranger, honored women, and protected children. In short, people experienced the presence of a Good Shepherd in the ways Christians lived their lives together. Slowly at first, but in less than 300 years Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
And we are still being shaped by those same practices. I hear the same question time and again now… What can give me strength in these scarey, confusing times—times of war, terrorism, an unstable economy—a world more desperate, a culture that has lost its moorings? And our answer hasn’t changed. We need to know Christ’s love. We need lives that are shaped by his goodness. We need practices and skills that can help our children and us tip our city and our world toward decency, justice, and hope. We need communities and small groups that can make that love real.
A priest friend of mine told me recently of talking to a woman who is caring for her husband who has Alzheimer’s. She moved him some months ago into an assisted living facility when she could no longer manage to care for him at home. “When I go to visit him,” she says, “he tells me ‘I love you’ every three minutes, because he doesn’t remember that he just said it. And I always say back, ‘I love you.’ After all, who would object to being told ‘I love you’ so often?”
“One day, though,” she says, “he won’t be able to say ‘I love you’ to me any more. And I’ll have to learn to say ‘I love you’ for both of us. But that’s okay. I’ll do that as long as I need to.”
What situation could seem darker than that, a woman loving her husband as he slowly fades away? “Ultimately,” she went on to say, “we all have to remember for each other. And ultimately, we all have to love for each other. That’s the way it is.”
We gather here week by week to help tip our world toward that way of living. We can’t live that way alone. We need the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.
“Ultimately, we all have to love for each other.” We need this Good Shepherd, this Christ-contagion, this epidemic of love—to tip ourselves, our city, our world, toward goodness.