Congregations all over the United States, including our own, are currently doing all sorts of things to increase their visibility. We’ve jumped on the publicity bandwagon. We’re putting flashy electronic signs in front of our buildings, airing radio and TV spots, refining websites, to say nothing about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Periscope.
There is a lust to be seen and heard which has not always been the case for the church, as a discovery in Rihab, Jordan, reminds us. Archaeologists there were working the remains of St. Georgeous, a Christian church from the third century, when they noticed a hollow-sounding spot in the floor. They dug down and uncovered an air shaft that opened into a subterranean compartment. Further excavation revealed a series of rooms hollowed out from a cave, as well as a tunnel from the cave that led to a cistern. Some of the rooms were apparently living quarters, but one room contained what appeared to be an altar surrounded by stone seats, along with some crosses made of iron. Archaeologists determined that it was a sanctuary for Christian worship.
When this discovery was made public, the lead archaeologist said the cave was now the oldest known Christian church anywhere in the world and he postulated that it was created by Christians who fled from Jerusalem to Jordan to escape Roman persecution in the first century.
Whether the cave is what its discoverers claim or not, the reminder of persecution of Christians in the first century tells us that visibility has not always been high on the church’s list of priorities. In fact, in some times and places, invisibility has been the order of the day. But that was at a time when it was dangerous to profess Jesus as Lord and Savior—it was a time when there was, literally, a war on Christianity, and subsequently, one’s faith needed to be invisible.
Times have changed though from then to now. No longer do we need to hide our faith. No longer do we Christians need to be invisible. Truth be told, we need to be visible more than ever. But yet, often, Christians chose to, once again, be invisible.
Our first reading from Mark is from a time of visibility. It’s from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and he’s quite open and public with his work and ministry. He’s at the home of Simon and Andrew in Capernaum, where many people from the town have gathered around the door.
There, in that public and visible place, Jesus heals the sick and casts out demons. From there Jesus and the disciples move on to the neighboring town of Galilee to continue the public proclamation of the Gospel. But when we continue reading Mark’s Gospel, we don’t have to go far before finding that visibility soon gets Jesus into trouble.
Chapter 2 reports Jesus’ healing of a paralytic, his calling of another disciple, his discussion with the Pharisees about fasting and his response to a complaint about his disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath. Then chapter 3 opens with an account of Jesus healing a man with a withered hand in a synagogue on a Sabbath day. The next verse says, “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against [Jesus], how to destroy him.”
And there it is. Jesus’ public ministry has barely begun, and already people in power and authority are plotting to bring him down. The very next verse tells us that Jesus departs from the synagogue and heads instead to the Sea of Galilee, where he continues his work with the crowds, but already he has had to start avoiding certain public arenas. We see this same trend in all the Gospels. In John 7 Jesus refuses to go to the Festival of Booths with his disciples. It begins ominously saying: “After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him.”
It’s important to note that those looking to kill him were certain members of the upper class and not the general population of Jewish people. This small but powerful faction has now gotten so advanced that Jesus has begun to restrict his movements to avoid certain threats. It’s not that Jesus is afraid, however. Rather, it is as he explains to his disciples, that his “time has not yet come.” In other words, God has set the time when Jesus should allow himself to be arrested and crucified, and that time had not yet arrived.
What all of this shows us is that from the very beginning of Christianity, there were periods of visibility and invisibility, times of openness and hiddenness, proclamation on the streets and prayer underground. They have alternated with one another and sometimes even coexisted.
While nobody would prefer that we live in an era when our faith, for reasons of safety, would need to be invisible, the “visible” eras have their problems, too. One of them is that when no one is threatening our faith, it’s easy to become lackadaisical about it. When we don’t have to meet surreptitiously; when going to church is as acceptable as going to the movies, it’s easy to take it for granted.
One of the ironies about persecution is that it tends to fire up enthusiasm for the very thing the persecutors are trying to stamp out. Therefore it’s quite possible one reason that many denominations are experiencing membership loss is because nobody is trying to eliminate them!
When Christianity is out in the open, when anybody can walk into any bookstore in America and buy a book that explains the faith, we may not feel much necessity to spread the faith ourselves through visible means. Or we may assume that because the faith is out in the open, somebody else will take care of passing it along. Yet the fact remains that most people who come into the faith do so not because they went out looking for it, but because somebody told them about it—or better yet, someone showed them about it.
Now there are some who think and say that today Christians are being threatened and persecuted—that there is a “War on Christianity”. But I don’t believe for a second that there is a war on Christianity—after all, just look at us. We have assembled here with no threats of harm or incarceration. There are no protesters picketing our sidewalks. There have been no attacks on our building or people. I don’t believe for a second that there is a war on Christianity. I do believe, however…that there is a war on Christ-like living—and yes there is a difference, a big difference.
There’s a war on compassion and acceptance—heck even tolerance—we need only look at certain political rallies to see evidence of this. There’s a war on kindness and decency, compassion and love. There’s a war on cooperation—those who are “different” are dismissed immediately if they are even heard at all.
There’s a war on respect, civility and simple humanity. Living as Christ modeled is far removed from the life style of many—including many so called followers of Christ, and it has caused many faithful followers of Christ to figuratively hide themselves away in underground places so as to not become associated with those who live such un-Christian like Christianity.
It is time to stop hiding. It is time for us to stop being silent and letting the voices of a few sound out the ways of Jesus. That is why, among a lot of reasons, why I have been pushing the film “When God Left The Building”, and our Lenten focus of bearing more and better fruit, so much over the past several weeks.
We as followers of Christ, we as a church have a call—a mandate—to stand up to those who seek to defame and abuse and molest the words and ways of Jesus. We have a call—a mandate—to share and spread the Good News of Jesus that includes kindness, decency, acceptance, cooperation, listening, compassion, respect, civility, and most of all love for all—including our enemies.
As I said earlier, churches are trying to increase visibility. But there is a difference in being noticed as a church that is big and cool, hip and trendy, to being noticed as a church that’s changing lives for the better, doing mission, being the hands and feet of Christ.
Alan Kimber, pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Lodi, California, puts it this way: “When those outside the church look at us, when they look at you, what do they see? A lot of hype but not much substance? A focus only on self—an introspection that leads to a disregard of others? A defense of the institution, structure, doctrine and/or style of worship instead of compassion for those beyond the system? Maybe they see nothing— we are invisible. Hopefully, and by the grace of God, they see in us—in you—compassion, concern and openness, taking the risk to welcome and include others unconditionally. Hopefully they see the face of Jesus.”
To a large degree, the secrecy part of the church’s history has been for survival reasons, both for the individual Christians and for the survival of the faith itself. And when we think about it, we’re Christians today not only because someone openly proclaimed the faith to us, but also because the faith was kept alive through worship in secret venues like catacombs, covert meetings in private homes, and in hidden subterranean sanctuaries. Through openness when possible and secrecy when necessary, the faith was kept vital so that it could be passed on.
While there’s no question that in several places in the world today, the church does have to meet in secrecy in order to survive, that’s certainly not true here in our country. We’re living in a time where visibility is limited only by our inventiveness in getting the word out.
Yet with so much else also on the visual horizon, it takes someone who is, and it takes a church that is, committed to Jesus to point out, and show, the ways of Christ and the ways of Christianity as the life giving gems that they truly are meant to be. It takes Christians like us, and churches like this one, to be visible; to not hide who we are, who we follow; or what we are called to share and live.
So let us then seek to live visible lives of faith, in creative and inventive ways, all so that others like us, can come to know and experience the true transforming power of Christianity. After all, this is the way of life Jesus himself lived— a visible life of faith that took him all the way to the cross…for us… for all. Amen.