Last week we talked about where the word “church” came from and we learned that when we say “church” we could be referring to any one of about nine possibilities. Then I shared some of the history of the early church during the first three centuries. I left off at the beginning of the fourth century where the Roman Emperor, Constantine I, became a Christian and not only ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, but eventually made Christianity the state religion.
This was a good thing in many respects. It ended the persecution and allowed Christians to practice their faith in public. It also allowed for the further spread of the faith into more of the world. Constantine and other Roman emperors after him convened several of the “ecumenical councils” that resulted in the solidifying of many of the doctrines we take for granted today – such as the trinity and the dual nature of Christ as both God and Man. They were also able to stamp out various early heresies that threatened to mislead the faithful. A topic I may preach on at another time.
But what started out as a good thing, eventually turned into a bad thing.
At this time in history, remember there was only one church, the catholic church. This is not to be confused with the Roman Catholic church that we see today – catholic simply means “universal” – the people of the Christian faith were more or less united as one body of believers though spread all over the known world. This is our shared history as Christians.
At this point in history, the church was led by bishops – a bishop was pretty much the same thing as a pastor – just the leader of a local church body. The term “bishop” is the English derivation of the Greek word “epískopos” which means overseer or guardian. Each city had its own bishop, and if the city was large enough and had multiple church bodies with their own bishops, a central leader called an Archbishop was designated to preside over all of the individual churches. This hierarchy and leadership method developed out of the elder model that Paul had established from the beginning as certain individuals arose as leaders. The different bishops communicated with each other so that the church as a whole still remained united.
When Christianity became part of the state, these bishops not only had authority and power within their churches – they now had political authority and power – not unlike the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. Christianity had gone from being a persecuted minority to an empowered majority.
The year 410 AD – just 100 years after Constantine became a Christian – is marked as the Fall of Rome. It didn’t exactly just disappear, the fall was actually more of a slow decline. Nevertheless, by 410, the once world dominant power had all but been extinguished and replaced by a scattering of various rulers of different sorts. This began what we call the Middle Ages or the Medieval Period which covers the next 1000 years until the Reformation of the 1500s.
This long period saw major developments both in the church and in the geographical and political arena.
- It saw the shaping of the countries we now recognize as part of Europe and the middle east.
- It saw the development of the Pope, originally just the bishop of Rome, as the overall head of the catholic church,
- but it also saw a split in the church between the East and the West – resulting in what we now call the Eastern Orthodox church, which has significantly different beliefs from the Roman Catholic church and from us – a topic for another day.
One of the famous events of this period which has recently become a topic of conversation is the crusades. The crusades began in 1095 and went in spurts for the next 200 years. The crusades were a response to the rapid advance of Islam since it’s origin in the seventh century. Islam began in what is now Saudi Arabia and rapidly spread by force throughout the Mediterranean. It was really a miracle that they were stopped from taking over all of Europe. In the early days, after the Muslims conquered a land – they practiced religious freedom so that Christians and Jews could continue to practice in peace – though they were still heavily discriminated against. That all changed leading up to the time of the crusades as a less lenient version of Islam took over and started persecuting Christians on their pilgrimages to the holy land in Jerusalem. This pilgrimage to Jerusalem was an important part of early catholic christianity, so something needed to be done about it.
The launching of the crusades was also an attempt by the then Pope Urban II to stop the various different feudal lordships from fighting each other by giving them something else to fight.
In the speech that sparked the crusades, Pope Urban urged the people of all classes to take up arms and rid the holy land (Jerusalem) of the “vile race.”
Not only that, but he promised that anyone who died in this fight would have all of their sins forgiven and be ushered directly into heaven.
The result was monumental. Tens of thousands left for Jerusalem, meeting resistance along the way but eventually actually winning the city back for the Christians. Of course, when they took over the city, they also brutally massacred thousands of its inhabitants. Over the next 200 years, other crusades were launched as they tried to conquer more Muslim land. The fourth crusade in 1202 actually never made it to the holy land and instead went to Constantinople – the seat of the the Eastern Orthodox church and sacked it. More and more fighting ensued until Jerusalem was taken back completely by the Muslims near the end of the 13th century.
Now, I have obviously painted this historical picture with very broad strokes. If this topic interests you, I have a few free online resources I can point you to to get more details.
www.sanctorum.us has a great podcast.
While the Crusades were awful and caused the death of thousands of people, I would argue that they were more the result of the church gone astray than of the bloodlust of the combatants.
Imagine what a difference it would have made if the Pope had not promised the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of heaven to those who fought. I mean what an incentive!!
One glaring question arises from this situation from our 21st century protestant perspective. Why did the Pope and the people think he could even do that? How could this man just hand out forgiveness like that? And why would they believe that he could?
While the crusades themselves were bad – I believe the real BAD of “the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” – is the answer to this question:
The church had developed a theology that made grace something you had to earn, and those in power – the priests, bishops, and the pope – were the ones who could dole it out or take it from you.
How did it come to this? Didn’t these guys read their Bible?
If we look at the letters of Paul (Which they had)- we see it clearly that grace is a gift that cannot be earned:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
Even in his letter to the church in Rome – the place where the pope would eventually rise from – he says:
28 For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.
The GIFT of God is eternal life through Jesus.
How could the churches he wrote to have come to this?
Well, the very existence of these letters indicate the answer.
The fact that he needed to write them and offer such instructions is proof that from the beginning the new converts struggled with the concept of “free.” The Jewish converts were trying to merge salvation by faith with the Jewish law. The letter to the Galations is basically Paul chewing out the church there for doing that.
And, of course, the Gentiles were simply converted from the Roman gods model where they had to do stuff to appease the gods – so it was only natural that people still leaned toward a “no such thing as a free lunch” model – we still do it today.
Then over time, as the people in power were further and further removed from the original apostles, and the culture changed, and especially when the government took over the church – those in power became less and less connected to the original spirit of the the ekklesia that Jesus created and more and more concerned with personal profit and power.
Now, I’m not trying to demonize these early church leaders. In fact, many of them were earnest men and a few women trying to figure things out and do the right thing, but the cards were stacked against them.
I was able to take a class on Medieval Christianity this semester and it really gave me a better appreciation for what they had to deal with. I still totally disagree with many of the beliefs they espoused and the practices that came from them, but I can at least understand somewhat how it came about.
From the protestant perspective, the root mistake that these early church leaders made was in thinking that Jesus had placed apostle Peter, the former loudmouth fisherman who had denied Jesus when it counted most, as head over this new church and that this position and the authority that comes with it was somehow passed down to each of his successors – specifically the bishop of Rome aka the Pope.
They get this from the verse I brought up last week from Matthew and a separate incident in John:
The first incident is when Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is and Peter declares he is the messiah. Here is Jesus’s response:
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
The second is after Jesus has come back from the dead and appears in the locked room among his disciples. This time, he is talking to all of them:
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Now, reading that in our English translations and having nothing else to go on would probably lead all of us to believe that Peter and the disciples could actually forgive sins, and that Peter was the rock on which the church would be built.
A similar situation existed in the Roman Empire at this time. The language of writing was predominantly Latin. It was kind of like how the whole world today speaks and writes in English when working across cultures. Latin wasn’t the spoken language of everyone, but by Constantine’s time, it was the dominant “international” language, thus most of the biblical texts that the church had to go on were in Latin – even though most people couldn’t speak or read it.
In 383, the latin bible now called the Vulgate came into existence and became the bible of the church for the next thousand years. All other translations during this time were based on the Latin Vulgate.
It wasn’t until Martin Luther in the 1500’s that the original Greek and Hebrew were used for translating into the commonly spoken language. And we all know that a lot can be lost in translation – which is why Steve has always gone to the Greek – and I will do the same.
So, taking a brief look into that original Greek language I will quickly dispel the notion that the church was founded on Peter and that he or any other human beings were given the power to forgive sins.
1. In the Greek, the name Peter is “petros” and the word translated as rock here is “petra”. “Petros” means little rock, like a pebble on a gravel road. “Petra” is like the face of a cliff on a giant rock mountain – it’s what the city of Petra in Jordan was built out of. Jesus may be using a play on words, but he is obviously not referring to Peter the person as the rock that the church will be built on – wouldn’t be much of a church with a pebble as the foundation – but rather we believe he is referring to Peter’s profession of faith, his belief in Jesus – because that is really what the church has been built upon – the name of Jesus, not the little pebble Peter. If anything, he may have been saying “Peter, you are just a little pebble, an insignificant man, that the Father has revealed this truth to, and it is this monumental truth that is so strong and unbreakable like a mountain that I will build my church, my following, upon it and it will not be overcome.“
2. In referring to the keys of the kingdom – keys open doors – and if you read the book of Acts you will see that Peter was indeed instrumental in opening the doors of this new salvation to both the Jews and the Gentiles.
3. For both verses, when they are talking about binding things on earth and in heaven and forgiving sins, the Greek grammar becomes important. Greek grammar is far more rich and sophisticated than our modern English, which is why it is so hard to translate into something easy to read. In both cases, when Jesus says that “If you bind on earth it will be bound in heaven, and if you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven” the grammar associated with verbs in the second parts – “it will be bound” and “they are forgiven” is the perfect passive tense. The perfect passive tense refers to something that began in the past and continues in the present. An example would be:
I have been speaking to you now for 20 minutes. “Have been speaking” is the perfect passive tense. I started speaking to you in the past, and I am continuing to speak to you now. It’s not that I spoke to you – and done. And it’s also not that I will speak to you starting now. It’s an action that started in the past and is continuing in the present.
What the Greek really says is not that Peter’s or the disciples’ act of binding or forgiving on earth will then cause something to be bound or forgiven, but rather that it has already been happening and continues to happen. In other words, Jesus is not saying that “if you, Daniel, decide to forgive someone, they will then be forgiven” – instead he is saying “when you, Daniel, being lead by my Spirit, see that someone has put their faith in me which you know is the only way sins are forgiven – you can confidently say that their sins are forgiven because they already have been and will continue to be by me. And likewise, if you see that someone rejects my forgiveness, you can confidently say that they are not forgiven.” So, it’s not the power to forgive or bind, it’s the power to recognize the will of God in the moment.
Why the translators don’t just say it that way, I don’t know – but it’s right there in the Greek and you can do this research yourself for free online – just go to biblehub.com.
Now aside from the original language, there is evidence all through scripture that neither Peter nor any other Apostle including Paul claimed any ability to forgive sins, but always pointed to Jesus.
Nevertheless – this is where they got that notion. And along with it, they believed that Peter started the church in Rome – which there is no evidence of that – and that he passed on his power and authority to his successors forever. This is called “Apostolic Succession.” This is still believed by the Roman Catholic church today and they consider the current pope to literally be Peter’s successor in rank and in authority. The basis for this does not exist in scripture.
So, that is why the people in the middle ages would actually believe that the Pope could declare their sins forgiven.
But that’s not all. As I said before I digressed into the Greek, the real problem of the middle ages that eventually caused the Reformation was the departure from God’s grace as a free gift.
Armed with their perceived power to bind and loose on earth and their sole ownership of the scriptures (they were in latin which most lay people couldn’t read), the early church leaders – mostly after Constantine and the merging with the state – began effectively making up their own way to heaven.
As I said before I believe these people were mostly good people really trying to do what was right, but it was hard for them, just as it is hard for us, to really understand the idea of grace as an absolutely free and forever binding gift from God. Surely we can mess it up somehow. The people of this time period also took a lot more stock in the physical world than in the spiritual world and basically craved something tangible that they could do to ensure or verify their connection with this thing called grace. And thus the sacraments were born.
Sacraments is the name for some of the specific ritualistic practices that the church does. The Roman Catholicss have SEVEN. We do some of them too at Reality. The two most practiced are baptism and communion. In our church we see these as commanded by scripture, but we believe they are mere symbols of what happens in our soul – that they don’t carry any literal saving power.
The medieval church, however, turned baptism and communion (called the Eucharist) into literal dispensations of grace.
- A person may be saved by faith in Jesus, but the way he literally washes your sins away is by baptism –
- and baptism has to be done by a clergy because they have that power of forgiveness that others don’t.
- But baptism only cleanses you of original sin and the sins you committed before baptism.
- Once baptized, you have to stay sinless because you can’t be baptized again.
- But, since people obviously sin after baptism, they invented a thing called penance.
- Confession and Penance were how one was able to pay for sins committed after baptism.
Little side note – I learned a bit more about penance in that class I took. At least in the middle ages, penance consisted of doing a lot of bible memory. Their concept of sin was that it was a physical disease or disorder that caused a person to do what was not right, and that the cure was the re-ordering of the body through meditation on God’s word. I actually don’t disagree with that concept. Paul clearly tells us in Romans that we are to renew our minds – so I think they were onto something with the exception of the idea that you actually needed to do this to pay for your sins.
Back to the story.
Now, since people could not always get to confession or even remember all of their sins, it was likely that when a person died they still had some sins not paid for by baptism or penance – so, since a sinful soul cannot enter heaven directly and must be PURGED of the remaining sin – the soul spends some time in PURGATORY before finally getting to heaven. This, of course, though it might sound reasonable, has no basis in scripture. And that is exactly the point.
A lot of what they did back then was more based on human reason than on scripture, because, after all – Jesus gave the keys of the kingdom to the apostles – and we, the clergy, are their descendants and have the same power – so if it makes sense to me, then it must be true.
Now, again, I don’t believe these people were malicious in their efforts. Many were truly trying to do what was right, but they were also still trapped in the old mindset that what God really wants is for us to stop sinning. So, if we can develop a system where we try really hard not to sin but make up for it when we do – God will be happy.
Later on, this misunderstanding of grace also led to indulgences – a practice where you could actually purchase forgiveness of sin and shortened times in purgatory. This really began with the crusades and later was used as a way to raise money for the church. It was this practice, among others I won’t mention here that led to the reformation – which I will talk more about next week.
So, what does all of that have to do with the church today? What does that have to do with Reality Church?
Well, for one, that is our history. We are descendants of that church. And if we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it – which brings me to the other reason why this applies to us…
We are guilty of the same thing.
Maybe we don’t believe we have to work off our sins or that the pastor can dole out forgiveness to whoever gives to the building fund, but we do as an institution and as individuals tend to try real hard to either earn God’s grace or keep it.
Most of us protestants are good with the concept that salvation is free. That all I have to do is believe that Jesus died for me and paid for my sins himself and I’ll get to go to heaven.
But then after that, we the modern church in general reduce the Christian life to a set of rules to follow to make sure we don’t “fall from grace” or “lose our salvation”.
- We look for the lists of “don’ts” in the Bible so we can pin them on our walls to help us remember all the things we’re not supposed to do.
- We debate over how much of the Old Testament law still applies.
- We list the fruit of the spirit as something to work on, something to aspire to.
It’s like we look at the gift of salvation as something very fragile that we have to be very careful not to break, so we use our reason and our know-how to develop elaborate checklists of dos and don’t to ensure that we don’t mess up our fragile salvation.
But our salvation is not fragile at all. The proper reading of Matthew 16:18 shows us that our faith in Jesus as the Messiah is a PETRA – a mountainside of a foundation that not even the forces of Hell can overcome. And it is upon that ROCK, upon that faith that Christ intends to build his EKKLESIA – his CHURCH.
We are the result of that. Reality Church exists and is founded upon the most solid ROCK of all – Christ Jesus.
But we have bought into the lie from the beginning that once saved, you better try real hard not to lose it – because it’s fragile.
What this lie does is it gets us so focussed on not sinning that we forget to start living.
It gets me so focused on me, me, me that I ignore the second great commandment about loving others.
We get so worried about offending God that we offend our neighbor or worse, ignore them altogether.
Here’s a good one for you. I want to show you how Jesus tricked us..
If you’ve been in church any amount of time, you’ve heard of the time when Jesus announced the greatest commandment. The religious hypocrites are again trying to trap Jesus by asking him which of the hundreds of laws Moses is the greatest.
36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Obviously, if you’re going to pick one of these you want to pick the greatest – not the second greatest – so most of us default to at least trying to follow the first one. But this is where Jesus kind of tricked us…
buckle your seatbelt, or maybe put your recliners back up, because this is about to get really deep.
If loving God is what I’m supposed to do.
The question you have to ask, is HOW do I love God?
Remember that when you read about “love” in the New testament – 99% of the time it is “agape” love, which is not a feeling, but an action, a choice to put the other’s needs above your own, it’s self-sacrificing love – it’s not always devoid of a feeling but it is not a feeling at heart but a choice of the will.
REPEAT AFTER ME
Love is not a feeling. Love is a choice.
Remember that when we talk about love in church.
Let’s see what Jesus says:
In John 14, Jesus says this four times:
15 “If you love me, keep my commands.”
21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me.
23 Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.
24 Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.
So, the way to love Jesus, and likewise God the Father is to obey his commands. Well what are His commands again?
Love God and Love Others.
So I love God by loving God which means that I love God by loving God…
It gets a little circular if you only look at the first one doesn’t it. The only way to break the infinity loop is to move to number two – love others. It’s almost as if Jesus was saying the greatest commandment is to love me, and you do that by loving others. You want to show your love for me – love others.
This sounds oddly familiar with what I was talking about last week. What was that verse again from John 13
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
And what did I say last week about what the brand new church did – when it was hot off the press before any imperial corruption could set in – while the original apostles were still alive to direct them under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Let’s look at that again:
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.
44 All the believers were together and had everything in common.
45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.
46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,
47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching – the apostles taught what Jesus said – Jesus said to love others
They did life together in authentic community – loving each other
They loved others together through community involvement
Could it be that the church that Jesus had in mind all along was NOT one focused on rules and regulations and “how can I as in individual keep from sinning and making God mad at me” but one focused on loving others?
You know what’s super great about being in a church, in a community, in a family that gets this concept? When I put all my efforts into LOVING YOU instead of trying to FIX ME, and YOU DO THE SAME THING – there is no limit to the love that I can receive because I’m getting it from all sides. There is no limit to the love that YOU can receive because you’re getting it from all sides.
If I spend all my effort trying to FIX ME and you spend all your effort trying to FIX YOU, then guess how much love you get from me and how much love I get from you – NONE!
I believe this is why Jesus raised the bar so high – so that we would recognize we have no hope of winning heaven with our goodness. Jesus liked to do things like say “You have heard it said…but I tell you.” He did this with lust. He said, “You’ve heard it said, do not commit adultery. But I tell you that if you even look at a woman…” He turned an achievable command into an impossible one. And if you are a rare man who has never had this problem, then he gets you with this one. “You’ve heard it said, do not commit murder. But I tell you, if you are even angry with a brother you are guilty.” That is a command none of us can consistently follow. It’s like Jesus is saying, “Quit trying to live up to the law – that’s not what this is about”
My friends, as I demonstrated with the shirts a few weeks ago – you don’t have to help Jesus out with your sin. He took care of that for us once and for all so that each of us could spend that effort in loving others instead of worrying about ourselves.
You know an amazing thing that happens when you spend all of your energy loving other people? You don’t have time to struggle with selfish sins.
I find it really difficult to eat a snickers bar while I’m running or working out. Likewise,
if you and I spend all of our efforts POSITIVELY PURSUING GOD AND LOVING OTHERS INSTEAD OF AVOIDING SINFUL ACTIVITIES then we can experience that KOINONIA that the early church had. If we all walk around so concerned about ourselves that we ignore each other, we totally miss what Jesus wanted us to do.
That is what the church is supposed to be. That is the ekklesia that Jesus had in mind, and I think we can get back there.
And you are going to keep hearing this from me until we all get it – until I get it. This is how Jesus changes lives, and I want to be a part of it, and I want you to be a part of it with me.