(…continued) Acts 2 tells the story of the day the church was born. From that day onward, the church as a movement and as a fellowship of believers has spread out around the world and down through the centuries. It is an amazing story.
But what kind of story is this story of the church? There are many voices today in the news media, the entertainment industry, higher education, and in politics that are saying that this story of the church is, for the most part, a bad story, something of which Christians ought to be ashamed.
It is not hard to find examples in church history and in the church today to make that case. There have been religious wars, the church has at times supported slavery, and Christians have burned at the stake other Christians over minor doctrinal disputes, to cite just a few examples from history. And there are many well publicized problems today; financial racketeering in the name of Jesus, sexual abuse by priests, the moral failures of high profile evangelicals, and scandals of every other kind.
But in years past, children grew up with a different story of the church. Catholic children were named after saints, learned of their lives, and were inspired to be like them. Protestant children read books like Foxes Book of Martyrs and Pilgrim’s Progress, and learned powerful stories and positive messages about the history of the church. Today, however, the message is so often only negative, and without a positive and appealing story and message, the church will not survive. Young people hear again and again how bad the church is, and many want no part of it.
But there is another way to look at this, one that offers a more complete picture of the church’s story. There is a Chinese proverb that says: When just one tree falls, it crashes with a tremendous noise; but while an entire forest is growing, no one hears anything. The same may be said of the Church. The church scandal stories that get all the attention are like the trees falling, here and there, with a loud crash. But we must not let those occasional crashes blind us to the fact that we are in a whole forest, a whole world, which has been and continues to be blessed in a million ways by the growth of the church. Life today would be much worse if not for the life and words of Jesus, and for the positive influence of the church that grew up from his followers.
For example, most people do not realize that the Christian church is the largest single supplier of health care and education on the planet. There are dozens of nations where, unless Christians were there providing education and health care, there would be nothing, because no one else is doing a thing. Our own country, though becoming more secular, has almost all of its primary health care and education roots in the Christian church. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and many other of the nation’s first colleges were started as schools to train pastors. St. Olaf, Augsburg, St. Thomas, St. Katherine’s, and Concordia are among the oldest and the best around here, and they also were started by Christians. In the early years of our nation, there was no universal public education, and most children were taught by the local pastor, the only educated man in town. And health care? I think back to the hospitals I have visited as a pastor– St. Luke’s hospital in Minot, North Dakota; St. Joseph’s and Immanuel hospitals in Mankato; St. Mary’s and Methodist hospitals in Rochester; and Queen of Peace, St. Francis, Bethesda, and Methodist hospitals in the Twin Cities area. Their names tell their stories. They were all started by Christians with support from their churches. There is a whole forest of education and health care that has grown up all around us that had its beginnings with faithful people of the church.
There is so much more to this forest. There are whole nations in Africa where the infrastructure and government are completely broken and corrupt, and the only glue holding society together at all is the church. In South Africa and Rwanda, after civil strife and violence by neighbor on neighbor, the church led the way in bringing reconciliation. In India, it is the minority Christian church that provides the main opposition to the many injustices of the caste system, even though the church itself faces increasing persecution. Iran is one of our nation’s worst enemies, and has expressed clearly its desire to annihilate this country. Yet when Iran suffered a devastating earthquake several years ago, American Christians were there providing massive relief work. In prisons around the world, the most successful single institution in rehabilitating inmates is the Christian organization Prison Fellowship, founded by ex-con and Christian convert Chuck Colson. This is not to mention that slavery, which still exists in some Muslim nations, was brought to an end in all Christian nations, including this one, mostly by the efforts of Christians. More recently, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s was led primarily by the African-American churches, and the primary motivation was the preaching of the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. What’s more, our own system of democracy, with its goal of liberty and justice for all, has its roots in Christian doctrine.
We all hear the occasional tree crashing of yet another embarrassment in the church. In a worldwide movement of two billion sinners, there will much of that kind of noise. But we must not forget that the world we live in is a better place in countless ways because of the life of Jesus Christ and the influence of his followers, the church. When one looks at the big picture, it becomes clear that this is not a movement or an institution of which we need to be ashamed. Its overall benefits have far outweighed its failures. There is much in the church and in ourselves to be embarrassed by; but even in that we can see one of the church’s strengths. The Church teaches us to examine ourselves honestly, and to indeed be ashamed where shame is needed, and to repent and pray for forgiveness.
We must not be ashamed of Christ and His Church, neither should we be proud of it. Pride has its own dangers. Rather, again as we are taught, we should most of all, be grateful for all the ways God has, through the church, blessed us as individuals, and blessed the whole world.
When just one tree falls, it crashes with a tremendous noise, but while an entire forest is growing, no one hears anything. The church began very small, with a little group of believers, all together in one place, on that first Pentecost Day; and it has grown to what it is today, and has blessed the world in countless ways. It has done so in so many big ways because, on the individual level, it has touched and influenced the hearts of billions– like the boy in the story I began with. Slowly, quietly, in ways often hidden from the world, God’s grace has been at work– growing quietly but steadily– like a forest, or like seeds growing in a field.
Mark 4:26-27 — (Jesus said), “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.”
Mark 4:30-32 — (Jesus said), “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
Most gracious Father,
we pray to you for your holy Church.
Fill it with all truth; in all truth with all peace.
Where it is corrupt, purge it.
Where it is in error, direct it.
Where anything is amiss, reform it.
Where it is right, strengthen and defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, heal it and reunite it in your love;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.
–William Laud, English bishop (1573-1645)