I understand that all everyone is talking about right now is the international health crisis. My news feed is dominated by fears and stories, and there is not a single community that is not impacted in a significant way.
Read this instead!
So let me offer some alternative reading material. It’s about these guys looking up into the sky. Let me explain what’s going on…
After my Wednesday men’s group a couple of the guys asked for an outline from my notes. I’m sharing with my readers too, because our topic was the exact opposite of “The 24-hour news cycle.” It’s the 2,000 year Good News Cycle. Still news, still current, still cutting edge, still relevant.
Here’s how I introduced it in the email to the group a couple of days ago: “This week we will talk about how we got from eleven disciples staring at a hole in the sky and wondering what to do next to our worshipping community here at WFPC today.”
Two Thousand Years in a few short paragraphs!
It really is a fascinating story to see how the shape of Christianity has evolved, how the missionary work and the writings of Paul turned an obscure Jewish sect into a new religion with scattered outposts throughout Asia Minor and Rome. To see how the destruction of Jerusalem and dismantling of Israel in 70 AD reinforced the relocation of God’s presence from the Temple to the hearts of believers. And to understand how the relentlessly persecuted minority Christian Church became the official state religion after Constantine’s decisive 312 victory at Milvian Bridge consolidated his control of the empire.
So we talked about the following key events in Christian history (please excuse the lack of detail, this post needs to be brief-ish). I believe this is extremely important. Our end game is a conversation around the idea of what it means to be a Christian in the Reformed Tradition. We cannot begin to talk about Reformation, however, unless we have a broad understanding of history, and the innumerable variables that have impacted and continue to impact what it means to be follower of Jesus.
- The Council of Jerusalem (Acts 16) when it was agreed new Christians did not have to become Jewish first.
- Constantine decreed Christianity the state religion and commissioned the Nicene Creed (325), standardizing the essential beliefs of Christin doctrine.
- Fall of Rome – late 5th Century. Heralding the beginnings of the Dark Ages, when culture and knowledge and civilization were essentially (this is a big generalization) displaced by barbarism. Scripture, knowledge etc. became protected, and learning reserved for the few. Thus the hierarchy of the institutional church came to essentially “own” this knowledge. Access to God and God’s word was likewise “owned.”
- The Great Schism (1054). The church split on East-West lines. Orthodox to the East and Latin to the West. I believe this is an important element of the constant drifting of Christian thought away from a Middle-Eastern to a Western religion.
- “Saved by Grace” – The Protestant Reformation, dated to Martin Luther’s protest of 1517. Luther understood on a deeply personal level that we cannot make things right with God via religious practice; he had a revelation that we are “saved by grace” – a truth the entire Protestant Reformation is built on to this day. But we have to understand how we got there. Let’s try:
- Renaissance and Enlightenment. Europe was moving out of the Dark Ages. Art, science, exploration, thought, and – critically important – Gutenberg and his 1455 Bible. No printing press, no Reformation.
- Wycliff. Famous for translating the Bible into accessible vernacular. Somehow he avoided martyrdom, but in 1415, 30 years after his death, he was retroactively declared a heretic. The church dug up his body, killed him again by burning, and removed his remains from consecrated ground.
- Jan Hus. That same year and for similar reasons, Hus was burned (alive) at the stake in Bohemia.
- Reformation continued:
- Luther had contemporaries.
- Zwingli (1489-1531) was pushing for reform in Switzerland.
- John Calvin (1509-1564) left France and transformed the community around Geneva, instituting education for everyone so scriptures would be accessible.
- John Knox left the priesthood in 1554 to become a student of Calvin, returning to Scotland to establish the Presbyterian Church.
- Henry XIII established the Anglican Church in 1527 by declaring himself head of the church so he could divorce, but it was essentially a power grab, a political move rather than reform.
- Anglican cleric John Wesley (1703-1791). Methodism emerged from Wesley’s revival within the church. He led the “Holy Club”, a society formed for the purpose of study and the pursuit of a devout Christian life. Intended for reform in the church it led to the Methodist movement.
- The USA. Meanwhile, Scots Presbyterianism came to the colonies. Among these were Rebekah’s ancestors, Alexanders who settled in North Carolina many years before there was a revolution.
- The Presbyterian spirit of independence and love of liberty distinguished them and led England to dub 1776 and following as “This Presbyterian Rebellion.”
- I love this letter to England from a prominent Tory: “I fix all the blame for these extraordinary proceedings upon the Presbyterians. They have been the chief and principal instruments in all these flaming measures. They always do and ever will act against government from that restless and turbulent anti-monarchial spirit which has always distinguished them everywhere.”
Of course the church has continued to reform over the past couple of centuries. Why? Because “reformation” is a process not a one-and-done event… but also because the Gospel is always good news and cutting edge news; it is good news for today and for every today; “God with us” as a constant invitation and a strong word of reconciling, welcoming love in this and every age.
But this post is too long. If you made it this far, congratulations. Peace and more peace – DEREK