Brief synopsis of the readings: In the Acts of the Apostles we read about Stephan, our first martyr. He was preaching in a way that enraged the Jewish leaders and they stoned him to death. One of the witnesses was a young man named Saul. John’s Gospel continues with Jesus speaking to his followers. He prayed for his followers, and that they would be able to bring the entire world to God.
Believers of all faiths recognize a challenge: how do parents pass their faith to their children? They recognize that no faith will survive unless they fulfill this role. Last week I spoke about the Gnostic Gospels and Dr. Pagel’s belief that had the Gnostics prevailed, Christianity would have disappeared from history.
I’ve spent much of my life in the world of Christian education. I’ve taught religious education to children and adults. I’ve administered a Sunday school program that taught our faith to our children. I’ve ministered to teenagers. As a priest I treasured my time speaking about my faith to people who sought the Catholic Church or sought to return. Suffice it to say I’ve thought about this a lot.
And so how do we make faith attractive to the next generation?
I find it interesting that Luke (who wrote the Acts of the Apostles) decided to include the story of Stephen. After Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven his followers comprised a fairly small group, and let’s face it: how do you sell the story of someone who was killed by the Romans and will grant you eternal life if you believe this account?
I can’t imagine you sell this story by talking about a follower who was also killed by the Romans and didn’t rise from the dead. And yet that’s what Luke did. Again, as I talked about last week, Orthodox Christians found value in martyrdom, the belief that belief in Jesus and the promise of eternal life meant so much that dying for the faith was something that would attract others.
And yet it appeared to work. In Luke’s account Stephan’s martyrdom was witnessed by a “young man named Saul” who, by all accounts, approved of Stephan’s stoning. We know this “young man” as the man who became Paul and wrote much of the New Testament. His decision to leave his position as a Pharisee and follow Jesus was described later in this book, but it’s not a stretch to think that the seeds of his conversion were planted in this event.
In the first few hundred years our community grew out of the strength of those who chose to give their lives for the faith. Stephan was far from alone in his decision to die for his faith: we also revere St. Ignatius of Antioch who wrote his treatise while traveling to Rome to be martyred.
But witnessing for the faith by the willingness to martyrdom, by and large, lasted only a few centuries. In the fourth century Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and it became much more difficult for anyone to die for his faith.
So what do Christian evangelists do? For decades, centuries, and even millenuia, Christians have been told that they have to don’t need to die for their faith but they need to attend church and receive Communion lest they be denied salvation. I spent countless hours in classrooms not believing what I was told that salvation was reserved for those who attended church each week, didn’t practice birth control, and sent their children to Catholic school.
And in fairness the idea of martyrdom has survived for much of our history. In the 1965 film The Greatest Story Ever Told John Wayne played a Roman soldier who looked on the crucified Jesus and stated that “Truly this man was the Son of God.”
So today how do we live our faith in a way that our descendants will find attractive? What we know of our children and grandchildren should cause us some concern. They tell us that going to church looks to them like the Moose Lodge: “My Grandpa went there but it doesn’t make much sense to me.” We clearly can’t try to make martyrdom attractive and they won’t listen if we try to sell them on following the rules.
I believe the way forward is to live our lives and our faith in a way that people want to follow us. It’s not an easy path: as a hospice chaplain I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met a patient or family who have been surprised that a Christian can have a sense of humor and is able to think hard about difficult subjects.
Many years ago, as a seminarian, I got involved in the youth group at a local parish. One of the teenagers was an incredible bicyclist (he later rode on the Stanford bike team) and we would often ride together. He was smart, funny, and rode circles around me. We almost never talked about religion, but at the end of the year when I was leaving he wrote me a letter. He told me that his parents made him go to church and youth group, but he was an atheist. Until he met me. Spending time with me cause him to see faith in a new way and he thanked me for giving him his faith back.
I write this not to blow my own horn, because, well, I really didn’t do anything other than live my faith. We didn’t talk about religion but on our rides we would often talk about how people should be treated, how the search for truth should never bow to fear or prejudice. I had no idea I was having this effect on him.
I learned a lot from his letter. But mostly I learned that living with integrity called him to rethink his idea that Christians are a harsh, judgemental group.
Can we do this? I think we can but I think it’s hard. If we’re going to pass our faith onto the next generation we need to stop focusing on the rules we need to follow and show how living a life of faith grounds us and gives a purpose to what we do. We need to show those around us that our faith doesn’t dumb us down but instead opens us up. We need to show that love and compassion does not exclude people the world doesn’t like.
Let’s get started.