THE ROOTS OF EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANITY: WHY AREN’T WE CHANGED?
An older man finally gave in to the repeated suggestions of his family and friends, and bought a hearing aid. At breakfast one morning with his friends he went on and on about his new purchase. He described how many hours he researched it on the Internet, how his hearing was tested and how this hearing aid, which represented the latest in advanced technology, was tuned and custom fit to his ear. Lastly he noted that he had traveled a great distance to find the best specialist and then spent nearly half of his entire savings on the device, but he said it was well worth it. Fascinated, one of his friends asked, “What kind is it?” The man looked at his watch and replied, “It’s about 9:30.”
If we receive the very finest of a thing, we expect results.
Last Sunday Deacon David Hall shared with us his spiritual journey into the Catholic Church, after more than 3 decades of serving as a Pastor in evangelical churches. [NB: see Deacon Hall’s homilies at www.heartforgodltd.blogspot.com] The path opened when he began to pray the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours and there discovered a font of writers untapped in his seminary education: the Apostolic writers of the first few centuries of the Church. As he remarked, “They all sounded so… Catholic.”
Today I want to move that story full circle, and talk about the beginnings of the modern American evangelical movement itself.
You may be surprised to learn that what we today call evangelical Christianity began with the celebration of the Mass, and it started precisely with the reality Deacon Hall expressed last week: “You are what you eat.”
Remember, if we receive the finest of a thing, we expect results.
Over the past few Sundays we’ve heard the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel proclaimed at Mass. This chapter is called the “Bread of Life Discourse,” because Jesus teaches clearly and unambiguously, “I am the bread of life,” and He goes on with shocking words: “The bread that I will give you is my FLESH for the life of the world.”
Many in the crowd questioned His words. “How can He give us His flesh to eat?” they asked. Rather than back down, He affirmed even more strongly that his flesh is real food and his blood real drink. He raised the level of His rhetoric to paint in black and white: unless we eat His body and drink His blood we do not have life within us.
We heard the consequences of His teaching in the Gospel passage read today: “As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” Undaunted and unapologetic, “Jesus then turned to the Twelve, ‘Do you also want to leave?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.’”
When Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, an Anglican, was in mourning over the death of her beloved husband, she attended Mass for the first time with the Italian family she was staying with, in the city of Livorno, near Pisa in Italy. In the midst of her sorrow, she saw the peace and strength that this family gained from receiving the Body and Blood of Christ.
Her husband had suffered greatly from tuberculosis, and his physicians told him that the clean air in Tuscany would be good for him. Unfortunately, the bad air on a lengthy ocean crossing in a crowded 19th-century wooden ship was not good for him. When they arrived in Livorno, the authorities kept him in quarantine, where he died without enjoying the fresh air. It was a knife in Elizabeth Ann Seton’s heart to lose the husband she loved so deeply.
Elizabeth stayed with the Italian family for a year of mourning. The family was fortunate to have a chapel in their home, and a priest who offered Mass in the chapel. She saw the peace and joy that came over those who attended Mass and received Holy Communion. It was a peace that she lacked, and a joy she did not possess.
When she returned to New York she longed for that, and determined to become a Catholic. What brought her into the Catholic Church was the life-changing power of the Body and Blood of Jesus, taken from the priest’s hands into ourselves.
If we receive the very finest of a thing, we expect results.
That sentiment is at the historical root of evangelical Christianity.
The year was 1640. A 30 year old Jesuit seminary student began to ask a question that started him on a lifelong journey. He was Jean de Labadie, and at the time he was only a few years away from being ordained a priest. He devoutly believed in Jesus and in the Real Presence of Jesus in the sacrament of the altar. He was a Bible-believing Catholic, who understood that when Jesus said, “The bread that I will give you IS MY FLESH for the life of the world,” Jesus meant it, and when at the Last Supper Jesus took bread and wine and said, “This is my body… This is my blood,” He wasn’t kidding!
He asked a good question, which we might phrase simply, “Are we truly what we eat?” If it is the very flesh and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ that we receive at Mass, why are our lives not transformed powerfully and completely by this food we call the Bread of Angels? After all, a mere glancing touch of Jesus healed and transformed in the Gospels, and if we consume his body and blood should we not be completely changed?
Jean de Labadie left the Jesuit Order before his final vows, and was ordained a priest for a diocese in France. The same question burned in his mind and heart, becoming a furnace of passion from which he delivered brilliant sermons and drew many people. He was moved from the small country parish where he served to the cathedral parish in the city, where more people were moved by the strength of his preaching and devotion.
Still, his heart was restless. He left the diocese where he served and for a time entered an Oratory to find close fellowship among brother priests as well as more time for prayer and study. He left there, and spent some time as chaplain of a monastery of nuns in Western France, where he encountered the teachings of the Catholic Bishop Cornelius Jansens. Bishop Jansens asked the same question: how do we experience the Grace of the Mass in our lives in a concrete and visible way? Why do we not experience complete transformation when we receive communion?
After all, If we receive the very finest of a thing, we expect results.
Restless to pursue his question, Labadie became a follower of Calvinism and the Reformed tradition in Geneva, Switzerland. However, he still believed in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, disagreeing with the Calvinists that the bread and wine remained only bread and wine, only symbols of Jesus in our midst.
Eventually, the Calvinists excommunicated him and drove him out of Geneva. But it was during his time in Geneva that a young man named Philip Jakob Spener often went to hear the sermons of Labadie and became enthralled with the same question: if we truly take into ourselves the true flesh and blood of Jesus, should we not be changed by the experience? Spener had left the Lutheran church over the same question, thinking that there was too much emphasis on the external FORM of the liturgy, and not enough on the INTERNAL conversion of the person. He found in Labadie a sympathetic soul, for both had asked whether we place too much emphasis on words and gestures, to the exclusion of paying attention to our souls.
Spener and Labadie found that pursuing an answer to the question led them away from emphasizing the external behaviors, the lives and actions of Christians, and into the soul. They sought an inner conversion, a regeneration, that would change the Believing Christian from the inside out. If a person were regenerated in Christ, that person would then naturally give evidence of it in how he or she lived his life. First, however, came the inner rebirth.
Labadie took another step: he concluded that the true church consists only of those who are regenerated or born again in that way. And if a person is truly born again in Christ, he should feel it and be able to describe it and tell others about that experience. Personal witness, personal testimony to one’s conversion experience, was an essential part of being a Christian. Without a conversion experience and a story to tell about it, one could not be certain of being born again in Christ.Frustrated with so little evidence of born-again Christians in Catholic and Protestant Reformed and Lutheran traditions, Labadie started what he and Spener would come to call a “little church within the Church,” or a little church of true saints. It was a community of Believers committed to living a lifestyle very different from what the world offered, a lifestyle withdrawn from the world and its vanities.
Philip Jakob Spener would become a major influence in the beginnings of what came to be called the “pietist” movement, which grew apart from the formalism of Lutheran worship and stressed the need for a conversion experience, of being regenerated in Christ or “born again.” Labadie would go on to found his own sect of Christianity, in which the personal experience and personal testimony of conversion was an important part.
Interestingly, neither Labadie nor Spener ever lost their faith in the true presence of Jesus in the sacrament of the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Jesus. This deep faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist brought them into conflict with many Reformation Protestants. Later in life Spener wrote a creed of what he believed, and in it he professed, “I acknowledge the glorious power in the sacramental, oral, and not merely spiritual eating and drinking of the body and blood of the Lord in the Holy Supper.”
Philip Jakob Spener is rightly called the “father of Pietism,” but he and the preacher whose sermons influenced him so much – Jean de Labadie – were simply asking why we are not totally transformed by the power of the Eucharist when we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus.
He and Labadie, as also Bishop Jansens, probed what it means to say, if we receive the very finest of a thing, we expect results.
Week after week after week, you and I come into the doors of this church, and when we leave we are little different. In the Sacrament of Penance – Confession – people tell me that they commit the same sins over and over again. If the real Jesus Christ enters our bodies and souls in communion, how can we ever be the same person again – and yet we leave the church little changed than when we arrived. Why doesn’t the reception of Jesus in communion change us completely?
Labadie, Jansens, and Spener were not the first to ask this question, and they will not be the last.
Why doesn’t the reception of Jesus in communion change us completely?
I have a theory. WE DON’T WANT TO CHANGE.
It’s reminiscent of the old joke which asks how many psychiatrists it takes to change a light bulb: “Only one, but the light bulb has to WANT to change!”
We don’t want to change. WE LIKE OUR SINS. We may know that our sins are wrong, but we are comfortable in how we live. We don’t have a reason to change.
How many people know that their diet or lifestyle is not healthy, yet don’t WANT to change, and so they wait until their first heart attack. Only then do we see them on the treadmill and checking food labels in the grocery store for fat content.
No one changes out of comfort or convenience, but out of need or pain or fright.
When Saint Peter responded to Jesus, “To whom else shall we go?” it was because he also said, “We have given up everything to follow you, Lord…”
When Elizabeth Ann Seton was drawn to the Lord in His Body and Blood, it wasn’t because she was comfortable, it was because her heart and soul had been ripped from her when her husband died. She was suffering deeply in pain and grief, mourning and loss.
When Saint Augustine heard a young child chanting the words, “Pick up and read” outside his window, he did just that: he picked up a Bible and opened it lazily. It fell open to the Letter to Romans and he read an invitation to convert his life — a life in which he no longer found excitement or fulfillment. In his spiritual autobiography, the Confessions, he recalled that as he took his first steps toward Grace and conversion, he could hear his sins calling out to him, “You will have us no more!” He enjoyed his sins; he liked his sins; even knowing they were wrong, he did not want to give them up. Every few steps toward God saw Augustine falling back to his sins, because he did not really want to change. The inchoate state of his conversion is reflected in his famous and pithy prayer, “Da mihi castitatem, sed nondum” — “Lord, give me chastity, but not yet!”
We don’t want to change. And so we don’t.
Change never comes from being comfortable or complacent in life. It comes from panic, terror, grief, humiliation. Change is not borne from contentment; it rises from misery and blackness.
It is possible to receive the very finest of all things and not expect results, because in our deepest and most genuine, truest self we have to admit that WE DON’T WANT the same results Jesus wants: WE DON’T WANT TO CHANGE.
The most effective evangelical preachers and churches understand this. Without revivals that provoke powerful emotions, conversion is mostly an agonizingly and profoundly slow process; without arousing terror that the End Times are here, few people will want to be reborn right now; without music that reaches into the deepest feelings of the human heart, few will open their lives to Jesus here and now.
Being regenerated in Christ – being born again – rises from a soul which deeply feels emotion. Very few people have ever thought themselves into life-changing faith in Jesus Christ: ever since Jesus Himself walked along the Sea of Galilee, He has offered His hand and His grace to those who look around and find themselves in difficulty: those who WANT to change.
Today, although the REAL food and REAL drink of the Body and Blood of Jesus is offered every day, most of us prefer to feast on the fast food and comfort food that reinforces our lifestyle. To take the Body and Blood of Christ into our souls, and not just into our gut, would mean that we would HAVE to change. We don’t really want to.
I simply ask you to tuck away this thought: when you ARE ready to change, you don’t have to go somewhere else to look for Him. He’s been here all the time, waiting, hoping, longing. If not today, then when life hands you a surprise, a challenge, a moment of darkness or fear, a reason to want to change, just remember that He is here, in the tabernacle, on the altar… the food of angels, the Body and Blood of Jesus, with the power to change you completely. Bread of the finest wheat.
After all, if we receive the very finest of a thing, we expect results.
Rev. William J. King
Sunday, August 26, 2012