Friday, October 25, 2013

1700 years ago ...

Did you know this year marks the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan?

Sorry, let me take a minute for the deafening cheers to die down.

You say you didn't know about the Edict of Milan?  Probably not by that name.  You may know that in the early centuries of Christianity, under Roman law, Christianity was considered an illegal religion.  Sometimes Christianity was tolerated, most of the time it was ignored, and once in a while it was violently persecuted.  You're probably familiar with gruesome stories of  early Christians being beheaded, burned at the stake, or torn apart by wild animals in the Coliseum.

The Edict of Milan put an end to that.

In 313 AD, Emperor Constantine signed this edict saying that Christianity was officially tolerated -- that it was a legitimate religion under Roman law and not open to persecution.

That didn't quite end the debate; there was an emperor after Constantine who revoked Christianity's status for a while and started killing Christians left and right, and finally in 380 AD Emperor Theodosius passed a law that not only made Christianity legal, but made it the official religion of the whole empire.  (Other religions were still tolerated, but now Christianity was, in technical terms, "established" -- meaning it had the backing of the government.)

This changed Christianity in radical ways.  Prior to establishment, Christians had mostly met in homes.  Christian leaders were usually not paid for their work, certainly not on any kind of fixed salary structure.  Rank and file Christians took their lives in their hands by their decision to follow Jesus.  Church buildings were almost unheard of.

Some things about those days were really, really bad.  Getting torn apart by animals, Coliseum or no, is bad.  But there were also some good things.  Namely, very few people were tempted to be "cultural Christians" -- those who claim the name Christian without any real commitment.

For about a millennium and a half, Christianity in the western world (the world that inherited the cultural influence of the Roman Empire, including the U.S. of A.) enjoyed varying levels of establishment.  Lots of other things changed in those 1500 years.  Philosophies came and went, cultures rose and fell.  But all along the way, Christianity in the major countries of the west was the official religion in some shape or form.

A few key decisions knocked away that established Christian foundation.  (The changes in philosophy set the stage for these changes, but we're not going to dig that deep.)  One big one was in 1789 when the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights was enshrined as the law of the land in America.  The first amendment, if you remember, says that the U.S. Government shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion.  In other words, Christianity has no official status as THE religion of the U.S.

For a couple hundred years after that, Christianity enjoyed primacy in the U.S. just because the vast majority of citizens were part of a Christian church to whatever degree, and they assumed part of being an American was to support Christianity, actively or passively.

In the mid-1800's, science started to provide answers to questions that up until that point had been the exclusive domain of religion.  Darwin taught us that we might not have descended from Adam and Eve -- instead, it might have been Cheeta (remember Cheeta?).  We learned about electricity and light bulbs and suddenly that whole bit in Genesis 1 about God creating night and day seemed a lot less important.  Henry Ford convinced people to build garages to keep their new cars in when they weren't driving around the countryside and the Wright brothers made it possible to fly from New York to L.A.   Things changed.  Big time.  Christianity began to seem a little outmoded.  A couple post-war economies taught us about materialism and Woodstock taught us about free love.  In short, our culture changed more in a hundred and fifty years than it had in the 1500 years previous.

Religion is notoriously slow to keep up with cultural change.

Today, Christianity finds itself in a world we are ill prepared to face.  Our culture is post-Enlightenment, postmodern, and post-Christian.

What does this mean?

In terms of relationships, it's tough.  What is the etiquette of cell phone use at the dinner table?  You won't find that one laid out in the Bible.  What does Christianity have to say to a friends-with-benefits culture where serial monogamy is the norm and single moms outnumber non-divorced married couples?

Plenty, you say.  Just plenty.

I agree.  But we've got to scramble to get a word in edgewise in this overstimulated world.

The Edict of Milan has pretty much run its course.  We're not headed back to the days of wild animals in the Coliseum, though there are places in the world where Jesus' followers face that kind of danger, and we'd do well to pay attention.  But mostly the culture is just passing Christians by without so much as a wave.  How do we live in the middle of this mess?

A couple thoughts.  It's going to take banding together with brothers and sisters who know Jesus.  We need community, and I'm not talking about Facebook.  We need to be in each other's homes and in each other's lives.  We need to stop waiting for the pastor to tell us how it is, and get busy digging into our Bibles.  We need to pray like mad for our kids, and spend as many hours as we can pouring our lives into those relationships from day one -- not waiting for "someday" when they can make up their own minds.  The culture is evangelistic about the benefits of relative morality and situation ethics, and it will sweep your kids away if you don't lay a good foundation in their lives before age six.

I'm so not joking about that last sentence.

It's a new day for Christianity.  Here's the most important thing yet:  God is not surprised by any of this.  What's he up to?  What's his agenda?  That's the right question.

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