This Sunday, Pastor Roger Barkley concludes the three-part series on our church’s Mission Statement by exploring what it means to “serve Christ”.

Along the way, he asks why the “War Against Christmas” conspiracy theory persists among conservative churches (spoiler alert: there is no war against Christmas … and for many years the Protestant church opposed Christmas celebrations).

 

Serve Christ
November 25, 2018

Welcome to the week after Thanksgiving, which of course is the traditional speculation of how the nefarious Starbuck’s Christmas cups are spearheading the liberal War on Christmas.

For several years now, conservative spokesmen like Bill O’Reilly have espoused a War on Christmas, complaining that saying “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” is playing into a sinister plot to take Christ out of Christmas.

Starbucks, they believe, has been brainwashing America with anti-Christ messages through the artwork on their holiday cups.

In 2015, Starbucks tried to sidestep the controversy by just offering a minimalist, plain red cup, but that got interpreted as an appeal to strip all symbols from Christmas.

Last year’s cup was accused of promoting a gay agenda because – through a chain of events you can Google for yourself – some concluded that the top of the cup’s design is lesbians holding hands.

Cashing-in on these conspiracy theories, candidate Donald Trump hinted at a boycott of Starbucks and the whole “War Against Christmas” thing took on new life.

Professor Dan Cassino has studied the unfolding of the “War Against Christmas” conspiracy theory that gained steam in 2005 with the publication of John Gibson’s book, The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought.

Cassino observes, “They say the next step after saying ‘Happy Holidays’ is abortion-on-demand and euthanasia. … That’s a hell of a slippery slope, but that’s the argument being made.”

But if you really want to be accurate, then you’d have to say that the real war of Christmas actually started centuries ago when the Protestant churches in America and England banned all Christmas celebrations.

Christmas had become a raucous holiday, and the church saw no biblical reason to celebrate Jesus’ birth, so they rejected it entirely.

In the early years of our nation, several colonies had laws forbidding Christmas activities altogether.

In some places, you could be fined for even taking the day off work.

A calendar from an 1818 boarding school showed that kids had two weeks of vacation a year: the 4th of July and Thanksgiving.

Christmas was not even mentioned.

In fact, it wasn’t until about 150 years ago that Christmas was recognized as a Federal holiday.

So why has this conspiracy theory taken hold across such a vast swath of American Christianity?

Well, there are several reasons.

For one, social scientists understand that the more conservative we are, the more we perceive threats to ourselves and to our society.

Being more conservative tends to make one feel more threat from crime, immigration and cultural shifts than more moderate or liberal people.

As we grow up, our brains get wired that way by our environment, and growth toward more inclusiveness is undertaken with considerable psychic effort and risk.

Those who have this propensity to feel threats from outside forces then feel bonded and unified together – the classic “us against them”.

But how does American Christianity, the country’s dominant religion that is tax-exempt, well-funded and politically powerful experience this kind of bonding?

Well, they perceive ways – real or imagined – that non-Christians are chipping away at their values.

That’s why the more conservative churches feel under attack by society at large; this is a constant drumbeat in many conservative churches, which partially explains why they have so easily aligned with divisive politics that seem to have no real affinity with the Christian message.

This is partly why the War on Christmas conspiracy theory has taken root.

Once you’re immersed in the narrative, you see evidence of the threat everywhere, and you conclude that the enemies of the church must be driving it.

In the first several generations after Jesus, the early church lived under real threat.

In some Roman regions, joining a church exposed you to arrest, torture and execution.

So, most of the early churches were small, tightly knit communities that met in homes – sometimes in secrecy.

They were radically inclusive – Jews, Gentiles, men, women, free and slave – all worshiping and eating together, which enraged their Jewish neighbors as well.

Those early Christians were bound together both by the external threat of Rome and the local synagogues, and because they were immersed in Jesus’ message of love, forgiveness, and inclusiveness.

So, you can see why there is something knit into the Christian DNA that anticipates an outside enemy.

But even more so, love, service, and sacrifice are knit into our DNA.

Within those original churches, a new culture was born: one where caring for each other, regardless of background, sex or class became the norm.

Justin Martyr was born in Samaria in the year 100 CE.

From his own experience in such a church, he wrote, “We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else now bring what we have into a common fund and share it with anyone who needs it. We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.”

Inspired by the Holy Spirit, those foundational Christian values spread throughout the known world.

Living in North Africa 75-years after Justin Martyr, Quintus Tertullian converted to Christianity and became a prolific Christian author.

He famously reported that Roman reaction to Christians communities was, “See how they love one another.”

Not surprising.

Speaking of the church as the Body of Christ, the Apostle Paul had written, Ephesians 4:15-16 We take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do. He keeps us in step with each other. His very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love.

So, Christians who make the effort to break down social barriers, to welcome strangers, and to care for one another are not just being kind or good people: they are being nurtured as they build up the Body of Christ.

Their caring for one another is serving Christ.

Matthew 25:35-40 (Jesus said to them) I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’

“Then (they will) say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.”

I was very moved by last Sunday’s Thanksgiving service.

The gratitude people expressed often included how members of our congregation had gone out of their way to help and encourage –sometimes with considerable inconvenience –during times of need.

In the Body of Christ, this kind of caring works both ways.

As we give, we not only help a brother or sister and help the Body of Christ be what it is meant to be, we also grow as Christians.

We learn to love.

We learn to prioritize as Jesus would have.

We become more loving, resilient, healthy and forgiving.

This kind of love, health and resilience builds as we participate, as many well-conducted studies – mostly conducted by secular organizations – have found.

Some studies show that active church participants are less stressed by life than those who are not active in any faith community.

In fact, one study found that “(active) church membership was the only type of social involvement that predicted greater life satisfaction and happiness.”

Other studies show that worshipers are more generous than their secular peers, giving 40% more money and 34% more time to charity, while other research correlates generosity with greater self-reported happiness.

A study of older adults in Iowa found that frequent church attendees were 68% less likely to die over a 12-year period.

Another researcher gave perspective to these emotional and physical benefits by saying that non-participation in a faith community has the same detrimental effect on your health as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 40-years.

OK, I love research and statistics but bear with me one more minute as I expose a common fallacy about divorce rates among Christians.

A pseudofact that we’ve all heard – and that I accepted as true – is that the divorce rate of conservative Christians is greater than the national average.

That’s been batted around to illustrate the hypocrisy of churchgoers, but it turns out to be quite misleading.

First off, 53% of the classification “Very Happy Couples” agree with the statement, “God is at the center of our marriage”.

Only 7% of the classification “Struggling Couples” see God at the center of their marriage.

Seeing God as the center of your marriage both improves your happiness, and your resilience and relationship skills to stay married.

Protestants, Catholics, and Jews active in their communities fair significantly better than the society at large.

Looking specifically at the often-reported claim that conservative Christians divorce more other Americans, it turns out the actual divorce rate of conservative Christians who are active in their church is 35% less than those with no religious preferences.

What skews the number is that people who profess conservative Christian views but who seldom darken the doors of a church are 20% more likely to divorce than the general population.

There are so many people in that latter category – people who believe but don’t participate – that they negatively affect the total number.

We aren’t meant to be Lone Ranger Christians.

Jesus calls us into community where we grow as we serve.

Ephesians 2:19 TLB You are members of God’s very own family . . . and you belong in God’s household with every other Christian.

Also knit into our DNA is care for our neighbors, whether Christian or not.

Matthew 5:43-44 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

For the early Christians, this was a command from their Lord, not just an ideal that couldn’t be actually practiced in real life.

Despite the risks of exposure to authorities, the early church became known for caring for their neighbors.

For example, when a devastating bubonic plague swept across the ancient world in the third century, Christians were essentially the only ones who cared for the sick, which they did at the risk of contracting the plague themselves.

Meanwhile, in their panic, many non-Christians were throwing infected members of their own families into the streets even before they died, in order to protect themselves from this terrifying disease.

Christians became known for helping the poor, the orphans, the elderly, the sick, the shipwrecked — even their persecutors.

We’re concluding this three-part series on our church’s Mission Statement.

An important part of the process of developing it was looking at scripture and at the birth of the Christian church to discover our roots and to lift up the non-negotiables of what it means to be a church.

One thing we found is that regardless of anything else we do, we are to be a caring congregation … so we wrote it right into our mission statement.

A caring congregation is a treasure in itself.

As we see ourselves as the living Body of Christ, we transform from a congregation which does care, into a congregation that itself is care.

Everything a caring congregation does – from worship, to preaching, to stewardship, to fellowship, to bible study – is oriented toward worshiping God and being God’s hands of care in this world.

 

Some resources:

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/19/us/war-on-christmas-controversy.html

https://www.earlychurch.com/unconditional-love.php

https://blog.chron.com/thepeacepastor/2013/06/jesus-and-community/

https://relevantmagazine.com/life/surprising-links-between-faith-and-health

https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2014/february/marriage-divorce-and-body-of-christ-what-do-stats-say-and-c.html

https://www.heritage.org/civil-society/report/why-religion-matters-even-more-the-impact-religious-practice-social-stability#_ftn89divor