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Postcards from the past

Palm Sunday celebrates Jesus’ regal entry into Jerusalem. “The whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen” (Luke 19:37). The disapproving Pharisees petitioned Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

The crowds were not muzzled, precluding the need for geological animation, but the church’s history repeatedly illustrates the truth of Jesus’ words. Wherever a “religious” agenda seeks to stifle or contain the spontaneous breaking forth of God’s kingdom life, that life always, irresistibly emerges elsewhere.

The early church suffered periods of intense persecution during its first 300 years. Christianity was illegal and, despite its remarkable growth and philanthropic impact, was targeted by those looking to scapegoat someone for the Roman Empire’s general decline. The “conversion” of Constantine (312 A.D.) and the ensuing Edict of Milan (313 A.D.) ensured Christians persecution-free worship and service.

It then became socially advantageous to affiliate with the Emperor’s faith. Large numbers sought church membership. Historian Justo Gonzalez comments, “the narrow gate of which Jesus had spoken had become so wide that countless multitudes were hurrying through it— many seeming to do so only in pursuit of privilege and position, without caring to delve too deeply into the meaning of Christian baptism and life under the cross”. 

Many Christians, survivors of persecution, noticed the loss of passion, mission and commitment in the church, especially with lowered catechetical standards to accommodate the influx of new members. The boundaries between “church” and “world” were seriously blurred as the church was expected to perform similar cultural roles that pagan religion previously had. As the church baptised new members into its fold, the culture, in turn, baptised the church into the role of “religious institution” within Roman society.

This left thoughtful Christians wondering how to follow Christ when church membership no longer cost anything and previously characteristic standards of personal and social holiness were dramatically reduced. In one sense, the radical and sacrificial lifestyles that eloquently articulated God’s glory through the lives of his people were silenced by the church’s accommodation of its surrounding culture.

So, the rocks cried out. Frustrated by the church’s indifference, thousands of fourth-century lay Christians left their now comfortable circumstances, headed into the deserts of Egypt and Syria and pursued lives of radical obedience in what became the genesis of a global monastic movement.

For thousands of years, new monastic communities, separate from the ecclesial structure, sought to provide faithful and biblical alternatives during seasons of either injustice or indifference within the wider church. If these are silent, the rocks will cry out. The pattern is repeatedly seen in the church’s history.

What can the Uniting Church learn from Jesus’ geological advice and the early monastics? One of the most important contemporary tasks is to locate God’s work both within and beyond the Uniting Church. The work we do only carries significance if connected to the Gospel agenda that has remained unchanged since its first articulation.

We seek and trust the Triune God to transform hearts, to build communities, to change the world. This is and always has been God’s agenda. Where churches are participating in this, there is life, growth and transformation. Where the church ignores this call, there will be decline and frustration—and the life of the kingdom will quietly sidestep our alternative agendas and irrepressibly emerge elsewhere amongst others willing to listen and obey.

Simon Gommersall

Simon Gomersall is Trinity College Queensland’s Lecturer in Historical and Contemporary Mission and Director of Activate (Gap Year Program).

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