Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Constaninian Test (Sermon)

“The Constantinian Test”
Matthew 23:1-12
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         In the fourth century, when Christianity was a mere toddler as a world religion, the Church began to face its supreme test. It started when Emperor Constantine won a battle over a stronger enemy and credited the Christian God. So, in 313, a victorious Constantine legalized Christianity. In 380, Emperor Theodosius I declared Rome to be a Christian nation.
What I’m calling a test occurs when political and martial power tempt the Church to confuse love and service of God with love and service of the state. The unwritten contract goes something like this: If you let us into your sanctuaries, if you tweak your theologies to justify our conquests and excesses, if you make faithfulness to your God synonymous with good citizenship, we will embrace your symbols and language. We will defer to your holy days. We, the State, will favor and exalt you, the Religion.
Since 380AD, Christianity has faced this Constantinian test continually, often unsuccessfully.
In fairness, virtually all major religions struggle with this test. When there’s enough fear and dis-ease in a culture, religions, especially fundamentalist factions within them, gain traction and scramble for exaltation. It seems to me that the three Abrahamic faiths – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – are particularly susceptible to failing the Constantinian test. And within those religions, perhaps no one is more vulnerable to the temptation to conspire with power than clergy. When a religion holds favored status in a particular nation, its leaders often find the personal benefits of complicity irresistible.
In today’s text, Jesus calls his followers to do something difficult. With regard to the scribes and Pharisees, “Do whatever they teach you and follow it,” says Jesus, “but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” They’re religious gold diggers, says Jesus.
Jesus is saying that authority comes not from the office, not from the size of phylacteries, not from the length of fringes, not from the seats of honor, and not from whatever deference the priests enjoy in public. Authority comes from the Author of Creation.
         I think Jesus gets to meddling because he remembers facing precisely the same test after his baptism. Out in the wilderness, Jesus is tempted to collude with the clannish, manipulative, and violent ways and means of worldly power. And this goes on for forty days.
Now, there’s nothing literal about the number forty. Whether referring to days or years, forty is Bible-speak for a long time. The story of Jesus’ temptation tells us not only that Jesus has to endure a long, grueling test, it also tells us that even Jesus takes a long time to overcome the devil’s deal: that gut-wrenching and all-too-human temptation to use our unique gifts and potential toward selfish ends.
         After its humble beginnings in Jerusalem, the Church enters its own forty-day wilderness. And when Constantine and Theodosius offer the newly-baptized religion power and privilege alien to its identity in Christ, the Church quickly caves in. It accepts the unwritten contract of state exaltation.
When the Church bemoans its decreasing size and influence, we can blame externalities all we want, but for nearly two millennia, no one has given more people more reasons, and no one has given more people better reasons to turn their backs on Christianity, and even on God, than the Church itself. The institutional Church has been more intentional about reaching out for sake of political favor than for the sake of the gospel.
         Our history, though, is about more than any one of us, more than any one congregation or denomination, more than any one era of our existence. So, maybe, we’re still slogging through our own forty-day temptation. Maybe we’re still weathering our own forty-day flood, wandering in our own forty-year Exodus, weeping through our own forty-hour hell between Friday and Sunday. If so, then every day, every moment, every decision, every word, every action, and every one of us matters – really and truly and eternally matters!
         Successfully on the other side of temptation, Jesus commits himself to living humbly and peaceably on behalf of the Creation. He practices what he teaches. Now, he does “tie up burdens hard to bear, and lay them on [our] shoulders.” That’s what take up your cross and follow me is all about. But Jesus lifts more than a finger to help us. He helps us to understand and value our burdens by sharing them and helping each other to carry them.
         Every time we choose to share the burdens of others, every time we choose to serve rather than to be served, every time we choose to forgive rather than to hold onto anger and resentment, every time we choose to stand in awe of what God creates instead of trying to figure out how to monetize or profit from some “resource” – every time we choose these things we’re overcoming temptation. We’re following Jesus.
The Church has survived for two thousand years, longer than any state or nation. That tells me that along the way, at critical times, we have told the Tempter that we depend on more than bread, that we will not test God, and that we will not bow before some devious Caesar.
Sure, sometimes in our weariness and fear, we accept the tempter’s contract. Sometimes we settle for the external trappings of religion over the call of Jesus.
          I wear a robe on Sundays. I wear eye-catching stoles and sit in this tall chair. I stand high-and-lifted-up, and speak into a microphone. With the state’s blessing, I claim my housing allowance as non-taxable income. That’s not fair to you, and I certainly did nothing to deserve special treatment. But I don’t turn it down. And some point, someone – not me – decided that an entire month should be set aside for pastor appreciation. It’s like a liturgical season! I’m truly grateful for every expression of love and support. And pastor appreciation doesn’t include parades and furniture store sales. But a whole month? Doesn’t that tempt all of us, especially folks like me, to exalt pastors onto pedestals where we don’t belong?
         It grieves me to admit this, but I know that if I took another job tomorrow, before long, some of you would fall away from this congregation. I know the same is true if we lost our extraordinary music director or pianist. I know because – and this is as uncomfortable to say as it is to hear – I’ve heard folks say so. Then again, I trust that in spite of such self-serving loyalties, and even if this, or any congregation ends up closing its doors, the Church will survive. God is not dependent on our robes, sermons, anthems, instruments, or buildings. God chooses to be present through our love for one another, through our care for the poor and the forgotten, and through our stewardship of the earth.
         Pastors are to be most appreciated when their congregations embrace discipleship and mission the way they embrace potlucks and bake sales. When doing as Jesus does, we are all, without distinction, ministers in the priesthood of all believers. And in the long run, by the grace of God alone, what we teach transcends what we do.
What do you imagine people see in us? Self-exalting Pharisees or servant-hearted disciples of Jesus? Probably both. So, let’s be gracious with them and with ourselves. And may we trust that we belong to Jesus, and that by his grace, all of us will make it through our Constantinian test.
In forty days or so.