Imagine walking—ticket in hand towards a stadium that holds over 70,000 people. Imagine the challenge just getting there! Everyone is dressed for a spectacle. Long forgotten are the concerns about financing the stadium, or the length of time for the construction. An event of super natural proportions will put the entire region on the map.
Once at the stadium you can feast upon a wide variety of cakes, pastries, dates, sweetmeats, and generous cups of wine—all served by handsome stewards passing through the crowds. If the sun gets too hot you will be shielded from the sun by means an enormous awning drawn to provide shade. Imagine: 300 tons of iron used in the construction; 100,000 cubic meters of Travertine stone.
In the year, 80 AD, with ticket in hand, you too could gain admission to the Roman Colosseum for the inaugural 100 days of games, which featured a parade, gladiator battles, wild hunts, and animal fights. Admittedly entertainment much more brutal that today’s Super Bowl contest between two football teams—but it was a show that filled the Colosseum to capacity and left crowds wanting more.
By comparison, Levi Stadium, the site of today’s big game, is billed as the most technologically advanced arena for sporting and other events. The $1.2 billion structure is LEED gold certified with a green living roof, and Wi-Fi throughout the stadium. Fans are able to order food and drink during the game via a mobile app. and have their exact order delivered to their seat. A 200 foot wide HD screen in the stadium provides instant replay for fans to review game highlights, and almost every space has multiple TV screens to ensure that no one misses a single game moment.
Knowing our joy and delight in all the features of modern technology—-I wonder if anyone attending those inaugural games at the Roman Colosseum could have imagined anything better or more advanced? I rather imagine an awed spectator turing to their host and saying at those ancient games something like Peter said to Jesus in this morning’s Gospel “Gee this experience is so great—let’s try to preserve it for all time for I can not imagine anything better.” or perhaps simply “Wow! It doesn’t get any better than this!”
And a statement like that should always give us pause for thought—for history shows us that few of us would ever really like, when it comes down to it, to be frozen in time. The brutal violence of the first century, spectators watching gladiators fight to the death, and animals being slain for sport, are the least of the problems with a first century version of the good old days.
Unlike today’s Super Bowl, which takes a free market approach to seating, in the world of the Colosseum there was strict seating policy distinguishable by both class and dress. Roman senators sat within the 1st tier of the stadium. Members of the nobel class sat within the second. Ordinary Roman citizens sat in the third tier, which was further divided into the wealthy and poor sections. Common women were relegated to the nosebleed section, relegated to the upper tier. Except for combatants, slaves were strictly forbidden from the Colosseum. Although construction of the Colosseum began about 40 years after the death of Jesus—-this was the Roman society with which Jesus was familiar. A rigid and often brutal hierarchical society that lived off the underclass. A society where the many, were in service to the few.
We encounter this morning’s gospel text just before the start of the season of Lent each year, and it comes as a kind of reminder that it is easy for religious people to become used to the way things are and even become complacent. In this mornings Gospel, we see that even after Peter, James, and John share an intense experience, a revelation of sorts about who Jesus is—and Peter desperately wanting to hang on that experience, to preserve it—it is Jesus who points his three disciples forward. Forward towards the Journey and discovery ahead. He refuses to dwell in the past.
And thank goodness Jesus moved on. Not only did Jesus move forward, but others continued to add to the work and ministry of Jesus. His disciples continued the proclamation of a Gospel of transformation and love. They continued his ministry of healing, as the movement we know as Christianity began to spread. The Apostle Paul opened up the mission of Jesus to the gentiles—a stunning development! And so one can see why Jesus had a sense of not wanting to dwell in the past, but to move forward.
Unfortunately, the liberating work of Jesus in welcoming women to share in his ministry was a window that would close by the end of the 2nd century. This was a setback one could argue that we, as the church, are only just now really beginning to set right these two millennia later. Likewise, it took people of faith a long time to wrestle with the often overlapping issues of slavery and race, let alone address issues of reproduction or sexual identity.
Today we are at a time and place where many in the church want to hold on to those things and those patterns that have been successful in the past—and in light of this morning’s lesson we might wonder whether Jesus would indulge our stopping to remain in the same place, or whether Jesus would have us move on looking for the next emerging area of ministry.
In a provocative article, ChristianWeek columnist, Carey Nieuwhof, makes ten predictions about the future of the Christian Church and shifting attendance patterns. I have selected five this morning that I think are worth our contemplation. Carey’s second point, I will give first as it is perhaps the most provocative. It is simply “Churches that love their Model MORE than their Mission—Will Die.” “We live in a changing world” observes Carey “and just about every industry has had to change. It would be a strange world indeed if the church did not have to change in some ways as well.” Another way of making this same observation is by asking the question “What are the seven words of a dying Church?” The answer that should give us pause for thought is: We never did it that way before!
If Carey’s second prediction seems too pessimistic—then his first prediction is positive and forward looking. He observes “As despairing or as cynical as some might be (sometimes understandably) over the church’s future, we have to remind ourselves that the church was Jesus’ idea, not ours.” He goes on to predict that It [The Church] will survive our missteps and whatever cultural trends happen around us. We certainly don’t always get things right, but Christ has an incredible history of pulling together Christians in every generation to share his love for a broken world. A point both simply stated and encouraging!
Prediction Three: The Gathered Church—is here to stay. We may have to discover different patterns and our gatherings may look different than they do today, but at its heart Christianity is a communal Venture. Carey affirms that Christians “will always gather together to do more than we ever could on our own.” To which I might add that: In the midst of a society where people increasingly feel isolated from one another—the body that gathers in Christ’s name has a unique role to play in knitting people together into a community that lives for more than itself. A community that provides a sense of meaning and belonging.
Prediction Four: The Online Church—and Online Ministries will supplement individual religious Journeys, but they will never replace actual gatherings and time spent in community. This is in a way similar to observations about online dating. While the internet may have an increasing importance and significance in the way that people find one another and interact—ultimately people desire face to face interactions and community rather than sustained isolation.
Prediction 5—I might say is actually a Challenge. “Simplified ministries will complement people’s lives, not compete with people’s lives.”(repeat) Here it is worth quoting Carey Nieuwhof at length He observes: For years, the assumption has been that the more a church grew, the more activity it would offer. The challenge, of course, is that church can easily end up burning people out. In some cases, people end up with no life except church life. Some churches offer so many programs for families that families don’t even have a chance to be families. The church at its best has always equipped people to live out their faith in the world. But you have to be in the world to influence the world. Churches that focus their energies on the few things the church can uniquely do best will emerge as the most effective churches moving forward. Simplified churches will complement people’s witness, not compete with people’s witness.
This Friday and Saturday your Vestry spent time together, planning and contemplating the future of our Church. It is clear to us that we are in the midst of changing times. In the midst of challenging times. In the midst of exciting times. We are on a Journey together. As we move forward as a parish it will take the gathered wisdom, the collective insights, and assembled energy of our entire community to discern how our future will unfold together. As tempting as it would be to stay at the mountaintop, preserving a moment in time. The Good news of the Gospel today—the exciting news for us is that—our collective future lies in letting Jesus lead us forward. Both, re-affirming old truths, and discovering new ways to be the church in this community for one another and for the larger world. It will at times I’m sure, be a journey of anxiety and challenge, but it’s a journey that we will be on together.
Sermon preached at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California, on 7 February 2016, The Last Sunday after the Epiphany (Transfiguration and Super Bowl Sunday), Year C. Lessons: Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4.2; Luke 9:28-36 (37-43a).