Scripture: Romans 8:18-27
Last week I read a facebook post saying, “Some people say the problem with our nation is Christianity isn’t taught in schools. I think the real problem is that Christianity isn’t being taught in church.” I was going hmm … if it is true that Christianity isn’t being taught in church, why is that? What happened? Many scholars say that Christian churches are now at a very critical moment when the paradigm of doing church is radically changing. Even ordinary people like you and I know that the way we did church 10 or 20 years ago is not working any more as it did and the Christian message we taught in the past as the universal truth are questioned, doubted, or denied by postmodern generations. What’s the context of these changes?
Nowadays more and more people are marrying outside their childhood faith, that those couples find meaning in other spiritual expressions. If I am not a Methodist I might become an Eastern Orthodox Christian because I find so much meaning in their practice of theology and spirituality. We take our confirmation students to a Jewish synagogue, Islam mosque, Orthodox Church, Buddhist temple, and Hindu temple to prepare them living in a diverse religious society. Also, the acceptance of scientific advancements has significantly altered Christianity and its message. It is no longer possible for people to reject the scientific evidence of evolution. Add to this we know that the Internet, technology, and social media changed everything. They changed the way we think and the way we relate to each other even in family and church. That’s what happened recent several decades. We are living in a really unsettled world. In this rapidly changing and seeking instant gratification culture and society, in my opinion, we do not teach, ponder and struggle long enough with “why church, why Christianity and what’s the calling of the church in this unsettled world?”
At the end of his career a German theologian, Karl Rahner, said this: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” By mysticism Rahner explained, he does not mean some extra ordinary or esoteric phenomenon but “a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence.” A genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence doesn’t happen instantly. It takes long time of teaching, pondering, reflecting, practicing and praying. What is your genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of your existence? Is it mercy, hope, comfort, or grace? Is it fear, confusion or just unknown? For me my genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of my existence is gratitude. Life can bring us anything and everything between extreme joy and extreme suffering and I believe all we have is God when we suffer. Because of God I can be grateful for everything and that’s my genuine experience of God.
But for a while I was discouraged with a feeling that I was not equipped or qualified to stay in ministry any more in this changing and confusing time of the church. Then, I began to look into the ancient church, early church’s history, the giants of Christian faith, the saints, and their teachings, spirituality and prayers. In the early church Christians were under severe persecutions by Roman Empire because Christianity was regarded as a new and dangerous religion. But one day all of sudden they found their religion, Christianity, became the national religion of Roman Empire because of the emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. Suddenly, the church and its leaders became so powerful. It was a huge wave of changes to the church from persecution to prosperity. At that time many great fathers and mother of the church left the church and started monasteries in the desert or mountains escaping the powers of the church and the world.
St. John Chrysostom was living around that time when the church was changing rapidly. He was a lawyer originally. Under his mother’s influence he received a baptism at age 24 and became a monk. He converted his home to a monastery and stayed there until his mother’s death. Then, he sold the house and moved to a monastery in a desert. He was there for seven years focusing on prayer, study and writing. But his friend brought him back to his hometown, Antioch, as the local bishop. He was a brilliant scholar, writer, and preacher but what made him so unique and one of giants in Christianity was his integrity between his teachings and his real life. Against his will one day he was kidnapped to be the bishop of Constantinople which was an extremely rich place at that time. He was expected to wed the gospel with the luxuries and comfort of the town. And he was expected to dispense material blessings and prosperity gospels and to endorse their corrupted lifestyle.
But the first thing he did in Constantinople was emptying the bishop’s palace of its costly plate and furniture and sold them for the benefit of the poor and the sick. He introduced a very strict simple life. His main teaching was this: “Happiness can only be achieved by looking inward and learning to enjoy whatever life has and this requires transforming greed into gratitude.” That was his experience of God emerged from the very heart of his existence. His preaching and teaching was the verbal expression of his entire life, and a sincere calling that eventually led him to exile and to death itself because the people in the power didn’t like his teachings.
For him the experience of God emerging from the very heart of his existence came from his prayer life. All prayers we pray this morning are his prayers. The conviction of his prayer life was from the teaching of Paul. In today’s bible lesson Paul says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” For Chrysostom prayer is a precious way of communicating with God, through the Spirit, and prayer gladdened his soul. He said, “You should not think of prayer as being a matter of words. It is a desire for God, a genuine devotion, not of human origin, but the gift of God’s grace.”
I believe the calling of the church in this rapidly changing and unsettled world is showing and reminding people of the ancient Christian way of faith and life and learn to seek happiness by looking inward for the transformation of our hearts. The church’s teaching should be the verbal expression of our entire life, not just a church talk. There is an insert for you. There is Chrysostom’s picture and prayer. His prayers are about 1,600 years old but still they guide us to a genuine experience of God. I want you to keep it somewhere you can see often and use it as a reminder of your prayer life. Please take it out and let’s pray his prayer together.