A Sermon Preached by Dr. Ralph Blair at City Church, New York, on June 24, 2001
It’s June – the month of brides. And the oldest of all brides is here today in church. She is church. She’s us. As scripture says: We are the Bride of Christ.
From the creeds that lie behind the letters of Paul, we see that from the beginning, Christians have affirmed our belief that we are recreated creations of God, living in a world that God created through Christ and is recreating through Christ. It’s now been some 2,000 years since the everlasting action of God’s mercy began to be lived out in the life-unto-death of Jesus of Nazareth. And it’s now been almost that long since the everlasting action of God’s mercy continued to be lived out in the coming of God’s Holy Spirit in and through the Church, the Bride of Christ.
This morning, in this first summer of our Lord’s third millennium, we’re going to spend a New York minute in each of the past 20 centuries of church history. We’re going to visit a hundred generations of Christians. We’re going to do this because we all too easily fail to see ourselves as only a fraction of even only the latest of Christ’s family of faithers. And ignorance of church history makes us susceptible to both Christian-boasting and Christian-bashing – by others as well as by ourselves. Whatever we might do to counter such ignorance will sober us as a community of sinners and strengthen us as a communion of saints. Flannery O’Connor warned that "Ignorance is excusable when it is borne like a cross, but when it is wielded like an ax, and with moral indignation, then it becomes something else indeed." That something else is sin. It was to save the world from sin that God sent Christ into the world in the first place.
Sadly, though not surprisingly, the sin that’s rampant throughout all history is to be found in church history as well. After all, churches (at their best) are assemblies of sinners saved by God’s grace. Churches (at their worst) have been institutions of sinners who refused to be saved by God’s grace. In the name of Christ (taken in vain) all the Ten Commandments have been broken. In the name of Christ (taken in vain) heresies have been supported and suppressed by coercion and killing. But by God’s grace and in the name of Christ (taken seriously) Christians have followed the One who said: "I give you a new commandment: You must love one another as I have loved you" [John 13:34] and "You must go and make disciples of people throughout the world." [Matt 28:19]
Some words of warning before we begin our mini marathon. A wise man of the 19th century cautioned against anachronism: "We are not to measure the feelings of one age by those of another." [William Hazlitt] And, said G. K. Chesterton: "You cannot be just in history. Have enthusiasms, have pity, have quietude and observation, but do not imagine that you will have what you call truth. Applaud, admire, reverence, denounce, execrate. But judge not, that ye be not judged." Chesterton was no postmodernist deconstructing truth. But he had the Christian courtesy to observe the biblical distinction between discernment and condemnation.
We dare not forget that while it may seem evident to us that others did terrible things in the past, it isn’t always so easy to see that we ourselves may be doing terrible things today – maybe even to those who did terrible things in the past. It’s so easy for us to see that it’s wrong to kill heretics. It’s not so easy for some of us to see that it’s wrong to kill prisoners or unborn babies. Will those who come behind us find that we were faithful? How will we be judged by the faithful Christ?
Now bear in mind for balance that Christian churches don’t have a patent on persecuting and plundering people. As Reynolds Price observes: "Most of the religions of the world have done a pretty bad job of reminding us that the creator of the world is interested in mercy above all things." That’s as old as the dustiest ancient history and as up-to-date as tomorrow’s on-line New York Times. And let’s add this observation by the historian, Sir Herbert Butterfield: "It is impossible to measure the vast difference [for good] that ordinary Christian piety has made to the last two thousand years of history."
Let’s keep in mind too, that, in Kierkegaard’s words: "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." All the men and women we’ll hear from and about – that "great cloud of witnesses" – had no choice but to live their lives forwards though we now view their lives backwards. We’ll want to identify with some of them. We’ll cringe at others (perhaps seeing too much of ourselves in them). Through it all, let’s be kind – knowing that we still have our lives to live forward, without a retrofitted understanding of the whole and apart from the insights – or blind spots – of our descendents.
And there are many about whom we’ll say nothing, even though they meant much to the welfare of others – maybe even to our own. We just don’t know anything about them. Said Heine: "The tree of humanity forgets the labour of the silent gardeners who sheltered it from the cold, watered it in time of draught, shielded it against wild animals; but it preserves faithfully the names mercilessly cut into its bark."
Even with hindsight on the lives of those whose names are cut into the bark, sometimes little is known – sometimes little more than the name. At any rate, there’s always so much more we don’t know. In thinking historically, C. S. Lewis said: "I am merely considering how we should arrange or schematize facts – ludicrously few in comparison with the totality – which survive to us (often by accident) from the past. I am less like a botanist in a forest than a woman arranging a few cut flowers for the drawing-room. So, in some degree, are the greatest historians. We can’t get into the real forest of the past; that is part of what the word past means."
But in the end, it’s really not about any of them or any of us as such. It’s not about being pro or con Copernicus or charismatics. It’s about Christ. Christianity is Christ. It’s about our being Christ’s Bride – or not.
The Bride’s been through a lot as she’s made her way through this old world through twenty centuries. As we spend a New York minute in each century, let’s see where she’s been and what she’s been up to.
Jesus had been crucified. His disciples were devastated. Then, they encountered him gloriously alive! They then were emboldened by God’s Spirit to go on, even suffering torture and death rather than deny that Jesus was alive. In Syrian Antioch they were first nicknamed "Christians" – Messiah’s people. Saul, enforcer of the Temple establishment’s persecution against them, also met the risen Lord. He became known as Paul, the major Christian missionary to Gentiles. Jewish Christians asked how the new Gentile Christians could be Messiah’s people without becoming Jews. Paul explained: the fact that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself." [II Corinthians 5:19] That Good News became liberation for eternal life in daily life – especially for women, children, slaves and the sick. In 70, the Temple was destroyed by Rome and Judaism was reorganized. By century’s end, the New Testament texts were being read all over the Empire.
Leadership in the church moved from Jesus’ generation to the "apostolic fathers." There were now some 10,000 Christians. Paul had warned of false gospels and, sure enough, false gospels were being preached here and there. Persecution continued. Anti-Christian hostility was fueled by rumors that Christians were cannibals – eating the flesh and drinking the blood of their Lord. Justin Martyr says that Christians worshiped together on Sundays, the first day of creation, because it was on a Sunday that Christ rose from the dead, launching the new creation. And in the Jewish manner, they recited the Lord’s Prayer three times a day. According to Aristides of Athens: "If there is one among [us] who is poor and in need … [Christians] fast for 2 or 3 days so that the needy may have the food."
By now, the Christian community numbered over 200,000 – mostly Gentiles drawn from paganism. A former pagan philosopher, Clement of Alexandria, wrote the oldest Christian hymn we have: "Thou art our Holy Lord, / O all subduing Word, / Healer of strife. Thou didst Thyself abase / That from sin’s deep disgrace, Thou mightest save our race / and give us life." His fellow citizen, Origin, prayed: "Jesus, my feet are dirty. Come even as a slave to me, pour water into your bowl, come and wash my feet." In 250, just after Rome’s millennium, the most severe persecution of Christians was underway. One of the victims was a 22-year-old nursing mother named Perpetua. While a gladiator was slaughtering her, the pagan crowd in the arena mocked a Christian baptismal chant. By the end of the 3rd century, there were more than 6 million Christians.
Emperor Constantine ended Roman persecution of Christians in 312. In 325, he opened the great church Council at Nicaea. There, the coeternity and coequality of Christ and the Father were affirmed as the continuing faith of Christians. Both Christian men and women were drawn to monastic life. A monk named Basil wrote: "What is the mark of a Christian? Faith working by love. … To love one another, even as Christ also loved us." Said another: "Do you want to honor Christ’s body? Then do not despise him when you see him naked, or do not honor him here in church by wearing silk, while you neglect him outside the church where he is cold and naked. … There is only one thing to be feared, and that is sin. Everything else is beside the point." [John Chrysostom] It was in the 4th century that Ambrose of Milan ministered as "the father of church music." Before the end of the century, half the empire was Christian – some 34 million souls.
No Christian since Paul has been more influential than Augustine of North Africa. He wrote over a thousand works including his Confessions, the world’s first "autobiography." Addressing God, he wrote: "You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless till it finds its rest in you. … Too late I came to love you, beauty so ancient and so new, too late I came to love you! And see! You were within me, and I was outside myself and searching for you there." Jerome, another Christian scholar of the day, made some very practical observations: "The friendship that can cease has never been real. … Avoid like the plague any clergyman who is also a businessman. … A hypocrite’s sin is no fault of Christianity." The papacy emerged in this 5th century. And it was the time that a young missionary named Patrick crossed the Irish Sea to carry the Gospel to a land that would never forget him.
Church services now had the aroma of burning incense. The monastic movement was flourishing under the leadership of Benedict, who opposed ascetic extremes. He said: "Let everything be done in moderation [for] there is an evil bitter zeal which cuts us off from God and leads to hell, and there is also a good zeal which shields us from vice and leads to God and eternal life." The Emperor Justinian constructed 25 basilicas in Constantinople, including the magnificent Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, consecrated in 563. In 596, Pope Gregory the Great sent a monk named Augustine to preach the Gospel to the pagan English and, as he put it, "turn Angles into angels!"
Christendom’s first church bell rang out over Rome in 604. The Pantheon was now the Church of Santa Maria Rotundu. But there were no giants in the land of the 7th century. There was political rivalry between Rome and Constantinople. There were, however, some good and wise monks. Said one of them: "Men can heal lust. Angels can heal malice. God alone can cure pride. … If knowledge can cause most people to become arrogant, it may be that ignorance can make them humble. Yet now and then you do find people who pride themselves on their ignorance." [John Climacus] Said another: "There is a new wonder in heaven and on earth: God is on earth and man is in heaven." It was in the last year of the 7th century that Christians began to decorate eggs at Easter.
The first English historian, the Venerable Bede, was ordained in 703. He urged Christians to "integrity, firm faith, undaunted courage, [and] thoroughgoing love." We still sing "The Day of Resurrection, Earth tell it out abroad! / The Passover of gladness, The Passover of God. / From death to life eternal, from this world to the sky, / Our Christ has brought us over, with hymns of victory." That’s by John of Damascus, the outstanding poet of the Greek Church. Islam had begun in the last century and Islam’s absolute interdiction of images was underway and the Eastern churches were feeling the heat. But then, in 787, at the Second Council of Nicaea, approval was given for the use of icons in Christian worship. Meanwhile, Eastern and Western Christians were going their own ways and weren’t much speaking to each other.
Charlemagne had the pope crown him Emperor of the Romans on Christmas Day, 800. He was, says Yale historian Kenneth Scott Latourette: "deeply and genuinely religious and conceived of himself as ruling by Christian principles." Missionary activity continued in the 9th century, especially to the Moravians, Slavs, and Bohemians. Nonetheless, according to Latourette: "The last decades of the ninth century and the first half of the tenth century were …years of deep darkness. … Feudalism rapidly developed [and] the major occupation of the feudal lords was fighting and war among them was chronic." According to another historian, "By 900 a renewed barbarism had largely extinguished the light which had shone brightly a century before." [Walker]
"Western Christians of the ninth and tenth centuries looked to the East and saw an emperor ruling the church. …Eastern Christians … looked to the West and saw a bishop attempting to dominate all the rest illegitimately." [Olson] It was a time when popes were drinking to the devil’s health, invoking heathen gods, engaging in wild orgies and political intrigues, and poisoning, strangling and otherwise doing away with each other. But, as Latourette observes: "Even in the darkest hours, …a fresh resurgence of vitality was evident in Christianity." Another historian says: "The misery of the times itself had the effect of turning [people’s] minds from the world, and of magnifying the ascetic ideal." [Walker]
As a Catholic historian puts it, all the "prejudice, misunderstanding, arrogance, and plain stupidity" of the Eastern and Western church leadership finally resulted in a permanent split. [George T. Dennis] They excommunicated each other in 1054. But meanwhile, after the theological drought of two centuries, there came along the greatest scholar since Augustine. He was Anselm of Canterbury, the framer of the ontological argument for God’s existence. Yet probably his most famous remark was this: "I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order that I may understand; if I did not believe, I would not understand." Celibacy was being forced upon priests and the first of three centuries of slaughter and plunder began – the shameful adventurism to be known as "The Crusades."
If it were not for the monastic movement, there would not be much medieval Christianity worth remembering. Among 12th century monks there were two great Bernards: Bernard of Clairvaux and Bernard of Cluny. The first gave us the hymn texts: "Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee" and "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded." The second gave us the hymn text: "Jerusalem the Golden, with milk and honey blest." We still sing these hymns here in City Church. A third monk, Aelred of Rievaulx, known as "the Bernard of the North," wrote the fullest medieval discussion of friendship. Over in Germany, the abbess Hildegard of Bingen wrote devotionals on the Trinity and salvation by grace. And in Lyons, pioneers of the future Protestant Reformation flocked around the ministry of Peter Waldo. One more thing: the 12th century produced the first church spires.
The universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Paris were now being organized and construction of the cathedrals of Chartres, Salisbury, and Notre Dame was underway. The cities of Amsterdam, Berlin and Vienna were being founded. The best-known Christian of the 13th century was Francis of Assisi. Renouncing his frivolous life as a spoiled rich kid, he devoted his life of poverty to preaching the Gospel to all, even to the birds. Besides founding the Franciscans, he’s credited with being "the father of nativity scenes." Other 13th century giants included Dominic, founder of the Dominican preachers of logic, and the supreme Dominican theologian, Thomas Aquinas. Meanwhile, the pope sanctioned the Inquisition’s use of torture to prompt recanting, an option that prisoners actually preferred to the harsher ways of courts outside the church.
In the first year of the 14th century, Dante was dreaming his way through hell and purgatory to paradise, in poetry’s supreme expression of Christian love. As his vision ends, he writes: "my desire and will were turning like a wheel moved evenly by the Love which turns the sun and all the stars." In Germany, Meister Eckhart was writing: "Only the hand that erases can write the true thing." In the east of England, a woman named Julian was having visions and writing them down. Her most remembered word? "We are all in Him enclosed." Meanwhile, Oxford scholar John Wycliffe was in hiding, translating the Latin Bible into English. For this, this "Morning Star of the Reformation" was so hated by papal authorities that even after he died, his bones were dug up and burned and his ashes thrown away.
In the first year of the 15th century, Jan Hus of Bohemia was ordained a priest. As professor of philosophy at Prague, he began to sound too much like Wycliffe. So, in 1415, papal authorities had him burned at the stake. The renewed evangelical emphasis on Bible reading and personal salvation was taking root elsewhere, as well – particularly in the Benedictine monasteries. This was all helped along by what Life magazine calls the greatest of the top 100 events of the last 1,000 years: the publication of the Gutenberg Bible in 1455. An information revolution was begun with the new printing press. And the Renaissance was exploding with fine art from the greatest talents ever to serve the church in a single century: Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael, Albrecht Durer, Hans Holbein.
In 1517, Europeans began to drink coffee. In that same year, on the last day of October, "The Modern Era begins," as historian Jacques Barzun puts it. But it’s not about coffee. A 33-year-old priest and professor, Martin Luther, was nailing to the church door at Wittenberg his 95 arguments against the sale of papal pardons. Papal authorities responded by demanding he recant. His public reply at his trial at Worms? "Here I stand, may God help me!" He went on to translate the Bible into the language of the German people. The other great Evangelical Reformer, John Calvin, was only 27 years old when he wrote his classic work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. His theology would have a profound impact, even in economics. And one more note: In 1539, Strasbourg Cathedral put up the first Christmas tree.
In 1611, England’s King James I assembled Bible scholars at his palace at Hampton Court. They produced the Authorized Version named for the king – the Bible in English for at least four hundred years. Besides this accomplishment, no other century has known such literary genius – with Shakespeare, Milton, Herbert, Donne, Dryden, Bunyan, Traherne, Herrick, Marvell, Crashaw. And that’s just England. Seeking refuge from persecution from the established English church, Calvinist Puritans sailed to America in 1620. Meanwhile, unable to reconcile the new findings of science with its preconceived dogma, the papal authorities placed the work of Copernicus on the Index of proscribed books and the Inquisition silenced Galileo. And the first church steeples were erected after the Great Fire of London in 1666.
In Leipzig, Johann Sebastian Bach was setting Luther’s theology of a Mighty Fortress to fittingly mighty music. Luther had introduced congregational hymn-singing in Germany and now an English scholar, Isaac Watts, was publishing the first English collection of hymns. His lead was followed by other fine hymn-writers: Charles Wesley, William Cowper, John Newton, A. M. Toplady. Wesley’s older brother John, an Oxford priest and scholar, led a revival among fellow Anglicans. His ministry became known as Methodism. These Anglicans vigorously supported the anti-slavery movement led by William Wilberforce, their fellow evangelical in Parliament. And George Whitefield was preaching Welsh revivals, founding an orphanage and helping to start the University of Pennsylvania.
Abolition of the slave trade in 1807 did not end slavery in the American South. The leaders of the abolitionist movement were Christian activists like Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The great 19th century hymn writers were women: Fanny Crosby, Cecil Frances Alexander, Charlotte Elliott, Anna Bartlett Warner. They were prohibited to preach from pulpits but their hymns, committed to memory, have outlived most of the sermons preached by the men. The century saw a vast outreach of Christian philanthropy and the greatest-ever worldwide missionary movement. And, after heated debate, the First Vatican Council promulgated the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1869.
On the very first day of the 20th century, a young woman at a Bible college in Kansas spoke in tongues, thus beginning the modern Pentecostal/charismatic movement that now includes a quarter of the world’s Christians. Liberal Protestants predicted what they called "the Christian century," oblivious to the evils to come in Nazism, Communism and secularism. Fundamentalism arose against theological modernism in mainline churches. From mid-century, there was an American renewal of evangelical fervor and a progressive church-led activism for racial civil rights. The 20th century’s nihilist writers were countered by Christians: Eliot, Auden, Mauriac, Lewis, Tolkien, Sayers, O’Connor, Solzhenitsyn. A third of the world’s people were now Christians, and two thirds lived in the Third World. Christians, the world’s widest and most numerous faith community, were now, as Newsweek puts it, "the most diverse society known to humankind."
Well there they are, the mixed bags of 20 centuries of Christendom if not the Christianity that’s Christ. That’s the ages-old distinction between the visible churches and the Invisible Church. At times the all-too-visible church known only too well has seemed to eclipse the all-too-invisible Church known only to God. Somehow, however, it’s but the beginning of the Bride’s biography. But she’s never been ready for her close-up. One day she will be ready – at the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb, her Bridegroom – the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. He’s the one who began his ministry on earth in the obscurity of the Galilee and was executed at the connivance of the powers that be – both religious and secular. And so it’s ever been in the corrupting power of political intrigue and stupidities of church and state.
But the true power of Christianity is the suffering Messiah, the Christ of the Cross. Said Paul: "We proclaim Christ nailed to the cross; and though this is an offense to Jews and folly to Gentiles, yet to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, he is the power of God and the wisdom of God." [I Corinthians 1:23-24]
He turned out to be the most influential person in all history. But why not? He was and is, after all, the one who began everything in the first place and it is to him that everything will be returned. "He was in the world; but the world, though it owed its being to him, did not recognize him. He came to his own, and his own people would not accept him. But to all who did accept him, to those who put their trust in him, he gave the right to become children of God." [John 1:10-12]
What we make of this is the most important decision we have to make. Here at the beginning of the third thousand years since his coming, we must join the people of a hundred generations who have made their daily decisions for or against him.
John wrote these words on the island of Patmos: "I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband." [Revelation 21:2] … "One of the seven angels said to me: ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’" [Revelation 21:9] … "And the Spirit and the bride say ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come and whoever wishes let him take the free gift of the water of life."
The Bride says, "I do." Do you?