The End of Christendom?

Luke 13:18-21 (New International Version)

The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast

 18Then Jesus asked, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? 19It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches.”

 20Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? 21It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

Anabaptists who reject historic Christendom may not actually be rejecting the vision of Christendom as a society in which all of life is integrated under the Lordship of Christ.  On this reading, Christendom may in fact be a vision of shalom, and our argument with Constantinians is not over the vision so much as the sinful effort to grasp at its fullness through violence, before its eschatological time.—Gerald Schlabach, as quoted in the preface to After Christendom

            We are in the middle of a seven-part sermon series looking at the seven core convictions of Anabaptism as laid out by Stuart Murray in his book The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith.  So far we have seen that: 1. Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer, and Lord.  And 2. That we are to interpret the rest of Scripture through what Jesus has done and said.  So today we come to the third core conviction of Anabaptism:

Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era, when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian.  Whatever its positive contributions on values and institutions, Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalized Jesus, and has left the churches ill equipped for mission in a post-Christendom culture.  As we reflect on this, we are committed to learning from the experience and perspectives of movements such as Anabaptism that rejected standard Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and behaving.

            Christendom is a term that refers to the nations of the world that are Christian nations.  We often think of the origins of Christendom tracing back to the fourth century when the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity.  But Constantine didn’t just become a Christian on his own.  When Constantine became a Christian, everyone in the Roman Empire became a Christian.  It didn’t all happen at once, but we begin to see people being forced to become Christians.  Constantine marched his troops through rivers as an act of massive baptism, likely because he expected God’s favor on his army if they were all Christians.

            What had been a religion on the margins where you could be persecuted or even killed for your faith became advantageous for its adherents.  It was to your benefit to be a Christian businessman or a Christian politician.  The government was on your side and you would likely be more successful in your business if you were a Christian.  When Rome would defeat another country, they would force those whom they had conquered to profess faith in Jesus, to claim to be Christians.  So as the Roman Empire grew and expanded into Europe, so did Christianity.

            By about the year 1000 much of Europe was a part of Christendom.  And in Anabaptist circles we often think negatively of Christendom, but Christendom brought a lot of good with it.  We find some great Christian poems, paintings, sculptures, institutions and cathedrals in the nations that made up Christendom.  And most of these were funded by the government.  In some cases the poor were provided for, the orphans were fed, the widows were clothed.  There were some really good things that came out of Christendom.  But not everything that came out of Christendom was “good”.

            Under the Christendom model, the church and the state were combined.  It was at times a struggle to see who was in charge; was it the Pope or the emperor?  And what if they disagreed?  I believe that if we look through the history of Christendom that we actually see times when the Pope excommunicates the emperor only to have the emperor excommunicate the Pope!  Where does the power lie?

            But for all of the positives and negatives that we can find in the Christendom model, I see one problem that really sticks out: Choice.  From the very beginning, God gave human beings the freedom to choose.  He gave Adam and Eve the option of following his commandments not to eat the fruit of the tree or to do what ever they really wanted to do.  They had a choice to make, and they made the wrong one.

            As God led the Israelites out of captivity and into the Promised Land, they had a choice to make.  Joshua puts it very clearly in Joshua 24:15, “If you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

            Even as God knows that the Israelites are making the wrong decision, he still gives them a choice.  In 1 Samuel chapter 8, we find the story of the people coming to Samuel and demanding that he finds them a king.  This saddened Samuel because Samuel knew that they already had a king.  God was their king.  But Samuel prayed about this and God said, “They have not rejected you, they have rejected me.”

            As Jesus begins his ministry on earth, the Bible tells us that he invites 12 disciples to follow him and learn from him.  These 12 men choose to do just that.  They could have just as easily kept on fishing.  But the Bible also tells us about men that choose not to follow Jesus.  The rich young ruler chooses not to sell all of his possessions and follow Jesus.  One man needed to check on some land, another had just gotten married, and a third had to go and burry his father.  They all make the choice to do something other than follow Jesus.

            But in the Christendom model, you don’t have a choice.  When the Romans defeat your country, they do give you a choice.  Become a Christian or die.  Not much of a choice, now is it?  But it isn’t just when your country gets taken over, it happens to everyone when they are born.  If you were born in Christendom from the Dark Ages through the 16th century, you were a Christian.  You were baptized as a baby and you were a Christian.

            I agree with what Stuart Murray has written in this core conviction.  Christendom brought a lot of good things with it.  There is no doubt in my mind that many of the really committed, true, diehard Christians that we have seen over the last 2,000 years have come about because of the Christendom model.  The gospel was spread and many people truly did make the decision to  follow Christ.  But how many people were “Christians” in name only?  How many were, and are today, only nominal Christians? 

            I saw this week that a cousin of mine had a funny little saying as her facebook status.  She said, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in the garage makes you a car.”  Yeah, it’s a little on the corny side, but it is also true.  Being a Christian isn’t about going to church, being a Christian isn’t about checking a certain box on the US Census.  Being a Christian is about following Jesus Christ, naming him as your Lord.  People shouldn’t have to ask you if you are a Christian and if someone ever does, ask them what they see.  Do you love your enemies?  Do you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give of your time and energy with no expectation of receiving payment in return?  Being a Christian is about choosing to follow Jesus and that is a choice we must make every day.

            Just over seven years after Luther posted his theses and really got the ball rolling in the Protestant Revolution, on January 21, 1525 near Zurich, Switzerland, Conrad Grebel, George Blaurock, and Felix Manz (possibly others) asked to be re-baptized as adults.  All three men were baptized as infants, but they wanted to be baptized again because they believed that following Jesus was a choice that one cannot make as an infant.  This is believed by some to be the beginning of the Anabaptist movement, Anabaptist meaning re-baptizer.

            The Anabaptists believed that you were not a Christian because of where you were born, who your parents were, or if you were baptized as a baby.  The Anabaptists believed that being a Christian meant that you have to make the choice to follow Christ for yourself.  Like the choices given to Adam and Eve, to the Israelites, and the disciples, following Jesus meant saying no to the ways of the world and yes to following Jesus.

            Now I just want to make a quick note about infant baptism before we get into any arguments here.  I do not baptize infants because I believe that becoming a part of God’s church is something that we need to choose to do on our own.  But if you were baptized as an infant, I respect that as a sacrament.  I don’t believe that you have to be rebaptized to be a Christian.  What is important is that you make the choice to follow Christ for yourself, regardless of whether you were baptized as an infant or an adult.  The act of baptism doesn’t save you, the grace of God does.

            Let’s engage today’s scripture a bit, shall we?  Jesus tells two different parables in our text today, two parables about the kingdom of God.  They are both similes where Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is like…”  He says that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.  It starts small, but when planted, it grows to the size of a tree.  It grows so large that the birds fly to it and build nests in the branches.  The second one is that the kingdom of God is like yeast that is mixed into flour and allowed to grow and spread.

            Both of these parables seem to be describing the same aspect of the kingdom of God.  They both seem to be describing how the kingdom of God grows.  The imagery that I like about the mustard seed is that it is planted right here on earth, in the garden, and it grows high into the sky.  It sounds to me like the kingdom of God that is planted here is to grow toward heaven to bring us closer to God.  As the kingdom grows and develops here on earth, we are being moved closer and closer to what God had intended all along, for us to be in full communion with him, to be closer to God.

            But the parable of the yeast describes how the kingdom is to spread throughout the earth.  It starts out small like a bit of yeast and through the efforts of the woman, it is spread throughout the dough.  But there is much more to spreading the yeast than just the woman doing the physical work.  There is something that is hard to see if you don’t know what you are looking for.

            I know that we have some excellent cooks in this congregation and some excellent bread makers.  I have a strong desire for carbohydrates, so I like a good loaf of bread.  And you just can’t beat a loaf of homemade bread.  Yes, you can go to any grocery store and buy bread a lot easier and maybe even cheaper than you can make your own, but you can’t beat that fresh out of the oven taste.  And the smell…Oh the smell is a gift from God!

            Bread really doesn’t have much as far as ingredients go.  You need flour, water, a little oil, sometimes some salt, and most bread takes yeast.  If you don’t use the yeast, your bread will be flat, dense, and less wonderful.  I have had bread that was supposed to have yeast in it and it was left out, and believe me, it wasn’t great.  We tried to feed it to the ducks at the park and it just sank to the bottom of the pond.

            Yeast is what makes bread grow and expand.  Yeast is what makes those little holes in the bread which makes it fluffy and light.  When you make bread, you often mix the yeast in with the other ingredients and you allow the bread to rise.  Then you punch it down and let it rise again before you bake it.

            The reason that bread rises is because yeast is alive.  It is a microorganism that eats the sugars in the dough and gives off carbon dioxide.  That is where the little holes in the bread come from.  It is living and breathing, and reproducing organism.

            Because yeast reproduces, we see things like bread starters, including friendship bread.  Friendship bread is an interesting concept.  You are given a little container with one cup of starter inside, which has a live yeast culture in it.  And you sit it on your counter top for a couple of days and allow the yeast to grow and reproduce in the container, adding other ingredients along the way.  At the end of ten days you have five cups of starter.  Traditionally you are to take one cup of starter to bake a loaf of bread for yourself, save one cup for the next batch, and give three cups of starter to three different friends.

            This is how Jesus speaks about the kingdom of God spreading.  It starts small, but it grows exponentially.  But the kingdom of God grows from within.  It grows from people like you and me living throughout the world like yeast, spreading, making other disciples, sharing our stories, living redeemed lifestyles.  The kingdom of God grows like friendship bread.

            I think this is different from the Christendom model.  The Christendom model grows from the top down, the yeast model grows from the inside out.  The Christendom model makes laws and rules; the yeast model makes friends and disciples.

            I believe that the goal is the same in both models.  Both the yeast and the Christendom models seek to make Jesus the Lord over all of creation.  The difference is the method of reaching that goal.  Christendom spreads through violence and force.  Yeast grows through contact with others.

            Christendom seems to be coming to an end in the United States.  No longer is everyone assumed to be a Christian and this is clear in the separation of church and state that is a part of our constitution.  But even as Christendom seems to be coming to an end, we still see aspects of the Christendom model in action.  I think that one of the ways that we see the Christendom approach today is in Christians’ approach to government.  We hear Christians say things like “We need to take back America for God.”  And to me, that sounds like a forceful, Christendom approach.  We hear about Christians that want to make laws against this and laws against that.  Abortion and same-sex marriage are common issues that the religious right tends to focus on.  The thought process seems to be, “If we can only make America more moral, then God will bless us again.”

            But I really have some issues with making laws that force people to be “moral” by “our” standards.  But I also realize that I am inconsistent on these issues.  I don’t understand why some Christians are so strongly against same-sex marriage.  I know what the Bible says about homosexuality, but do some Christians think that less people will be gay if marriage is outlawed?  And will that somehow make more people Christians?  But then again, I am glad that we have laws that keep people from killing other people.  I believe it was Greg Boyd that said something along the lines of If we are walking down the street and the only reason that another person doesn’t kill me is because it is against the law, then I’m glad for that law.  But I would much rather that they choose not to kill me out of love.

            We could debate all day long about whether this is a Christian nation or if this nation was founded on Christian principles or not, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t make a bit of difference to me.  We live in a nation where about 76% of the people claim to be Christians, yet only about 20% go to church regularly (  That is a sign of what is left over after Christendom.  People claim to be Christians, but they aren’t even putting forth the effort to go to church.  And just going to church doesn’t make you a Christian, so maybe the numbers should be even lower than that.

            Following Jesus is a decision that we need to make on our own.  And it is a decision that we make every day of our lives.  When you wake up in the morning, you must ask yourself, “Will I follow Jesus today?”  When you see a person in need, you must ask yourself, “Will I follow Jesus today?”  The way of Jesus is the way of love; the way of Jesus is the way of the cross.  Jesus’ church and the kingdom of God are to spread through sacrificial love, love that is shared from within.  We don’t spread love by forcing other people to claim to be Christians or forcing them to be “moral”.  That just results in people that are Christians by name only.  No, the kingdom of God spreads like yeast and like a mustard seed.  It starts small, but it grows exponentially.  It reaches far, and it reaches wide.  It reaches to the heavens.


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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