While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
Scriptures: 1 John 5:9-13
The “Church of God” congregation in Aylmer Ontario has had its doors padlocked by the Ontario Superior court for the congregation’s repeated refusal to follow COVID restrictions.
This put me in mind of some research I did on congregations near Bradford, Ontario. In the late 1800s one Presbyterian church was divided over whether to become Free Church or to remain Church of Scotland. The Session disagreed with the minister, so the Session padlocked the church doors. The Minister broke the lock on Sunday morning and went in and conducted a service. There is no record of how many attended.
So this is hardly the first time this sort of thing has happened here but I’m not aware of any other occasion where it was because of a court order.
I find myself with very mixed feelings about all of this. The behaviour of the “Church of God” and its leaders has been embarrassing for responsible churches. Here at Knox we have taken as our principle that God wants us to love one another and that includes keeping each other safe. That’s why we have been so cautious about live services; we are aware of the health concerns and we take them seriously.
At the same time, having a court of the land lock down a church is a disturbing precedent; and I’m not comfortable with that.
This week’s lectionary readings are popular in the Evangelical tradition, as are all the writings attributed to John: John’s gospel, the three letters of John, and Revelations. Scholars agree that they are not the work of the same author but they are the work of a connected community, a school of thought in early Christianity.
These writings are theological statements. John’s gospel doesn’t seek to tell us history but it expresses what the Johannine community truly believed was Jesus’ role and intent.
John’s writings frequently describe a situation in which Christianity is at a disadvantage: an underclass, a counter-culture, under persecution, where it is necessary to stand up for what is right and true against some powerful forces and foes.
When John’s gospel was written, Christians had been expelled from most synagogues by the Jewish leadership. Judaism was re-defining itself after the destruction of Jerusalem and a conscious choice was being made that the teachings of this radical rabbi, Jesus, no longer fit within the Jewish faith.
John’s is one of the gospels that sounds the most anti-Jewish because there was real strife between the communities and the Christians were feeling excluded and threatened.
Decades later the book of Revelations was written. The threat had become the Roman persecution of the church although the roots of that were sown much earlier.
John’s gospel explicitly called Jesus the Son of God over and over, which was a direct slap at Caesar Augustus. The Emperor was declared the son of the gods and hailed as the prince of peace for creating the Pax Romana, the peace created by the terror of the Roman legions.
The Christians, especially those who followed John’s teachings were declaring that the authorities of the world, like the emperor, were false, corrupt, and to be ignored while the teachings of God, which were true and holy, were embodied in Jesus the Christ who was the only true Son of God.
In the eyes of the Romans this was obvious treason: religious extremism to be put down because of the threat it posed to the peace and stability of society.
Is any of this sounding familiar? Extremist Christians defying authority by making claims that society knows can’t be true.
Christianity arose out of the poorest and most disadvantaged people. It was attractive in large part because Jesus challenged the claims of religious leaders and declared God’s love and welcome for society’s outcasts.
It grew in popularity in the Roman world where many admired the teachings of the Jews but couldn’t easily convert. Under Paul’s leadership, these folks were welcomed into Christianity without the strict Jewish requirements. Additionally, a high percentage of early Christians were slaves.
Christianity was founded as a counter-culture; a community that was defined by radical acceptance. A more hostile tone, the “us vs them” language in our lesson developed out of the conflict between the Christian message and the powers of the day opposing that message.
When Revelations was written there was bloodshed and martyrdom – a violent split between the truth of Christianity and the truth of those in power.
John’s call to separation and distinctiveness, that trumpet fanfare to defend the truth at all costs, is a strong part of John’s message. These words were an important comfort to a community under threat, an encouraging message to people who were poor, helpless, and abused. They will always be attractive to people who feel powerless as well as those who feel like they are losing privilege.
Out of this we have inherited the language and the understanding that our faith belongs to those who are oppressed and we should not casually surrender authority to the powers of the world, even in a democracy, because that allows oppression to happen.
2000 years of history have seriously complicated this. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire and as a result the church became the oppressor.
During the Reformation many Reformers took up John’s language to resist the Roman Catholic church, quoting Revelations against the Vatican, but then many protestant churches became state churches and started to oppress anyone who disagreed once again.
None of us can claim purity in this.
In the last century or so the Evangelical movement has used this same language against Science, against modern Biblical criticism and, in the United States particularly, Evangelicals have used it against teaching evolution, against vaccines, wearing masks and social distancing; sometimes against anyone who tells them what to do.
Frankly, what started as a support and strength for oppressed people
has become a knee-jerk expression of the theme: “you’re not the boss of me”.
As much as we want to separate ourselves from this irresponsible behaviour happening in Jesus’ name, we have to acknowledge that the principle here is an important part of our tradition and we can’t just toss it out.
We are working hard to overcome our oppressive past; we have re-discovered the idea of a message of radical welcome and we wish to reject the hostility we keep seeing, which is good because so much of it is directed at vulnerable people. But at the same time we have to ask what would have been different if we had challenged authority and stubbornly held to the principles Jesus taught when the Residential schools were being set up and we welcomed the authority they gave us over young, vulnerable lives?
It does happen, of course; the social justice ministries of the United Church often make a point of speaking truth to power.
The “Church of God” in Aylmer and similar congregations are behaving offensively; they are not using the brains God gave them to evaluate the real issues we are facing.
But their offensive behaviours should challenge us to re-examine and re-discover our responsibility to question what we are told by those in power before simply accepting it.
The point they make about religion not being answerable to the civil authorities comes from an ancient and formative part of our history. There will come times when an authority makes demands on us that are oppressive. Churches that have decided to offer sanctuary to people threatened with deportation have had to struggle with a modern version of this question already.
We have to evaluate everything by the principles Jesus taught us: God has first claim on our loyalty, no one else, and it’s important to remember this.
It’s too bad so many Christians today are making that point in such a foolish and irresponsible way, but maybe we can learn something from them and be ready to take a stand when a just cause comes along.