Summary: Independence Sunday 1987: We are called to be a distinctive people within American culture, not to follow popular self-centered idolatries.
The trouble with going to Ridgecrest conference center for a week is that you tend to forget how diverse a nation we are. If you were to spend too long at a place like Ridgecrest, you would get to thinking that everybody was Baptist, and Baptist of the southern variety, that everybody gobbled grits for breakfast and everybody elongated one syllable words into two syllables – see-yun instead of sin, he-yup instead of help. Honestly, it's the most down-home place I've been in a long while, and it sure does help me polish up my twang. Hope you can understand me today.
But the trouble with going to such a place is that you begin to think that everybody shares the same outlook, everybody does the same things. You would think even that everybody looked alike, except that five folks from Takoma and three from Miami did lend a certain variety to the crowd, thank goodness. You would get the impression that the whole world is just one big Southern Baptist church, grooving on the gospel, nibbling ice cream cones, and amening hot preaching.
But then you come back to Washington. Then you come back to reality. And in the real world, there are not only Baptists, there are Buddhists, backsliders, and Benedictine monks. In the real world, where you and I are called to live, there are not only folks who are like us, Christians, sharing a world view and a moral stance, but there are others, many others, who do not share that outlook and who do not live by that stance. The world you and I know best is not caught up in sermons and hymns, scriptures and prayers, but is trapped instead in the pursuit of wealth and in the relentless quest for pleasure. The world you and I experience once we leave this place is not especially concerned about who we are as believers or what we are undertaking here. Instead the concerns revolve around getting ahead, staying ahead, finding some kind of meaning, harboring at least a little happiness before the end comes and snatches it all away. We live, I am saying, in a world which is incredibly diverse, which does not necessarily accept or understand what you and I are about – assuming, that is, that we are serious Christian disciples – and which places some pressures on us - pressures to erode our identity.
And we have to decide how we are to respond; we have to decide just what it is going to mean to live in a world where the enormous variety of styles of life that surround us are always calling into question our way of living, our way of being.
The Christians of the first century had to struggle with that, too, as you might expect. A tiny minority within the massive multicultural, yet monolithic Roman empire, they found that it was not always easy to identify who they were and to make it stick. They found their own values getting lost amid all the competing ways of life. And nowhere did that problem express itself more completely and more pointedly than at the church in Corinth. These Corinthian Christians presented their mentor, the apostle Paul, with what may sound to you like a rather silly problem; but when you examine it closely, you find that it has all kinds of implications.
The problem that the Corinthian Christians asked Paul to help them resolve was this: Shall we eat meat offered to idols? Are we permitted to eat meat that has been offered as a part of pagan sacrifices?
Well, you and I feel no pain about that, because we do not confront exactly the same set of circumstances. But my thesis is that we confront it in a different guise. What was the issue, what was the problem with this meat?
The problem, in Paul's mind, was that if you share in the practices of the pagans, if you let ungodly practices feed you, then you are placing yourself under the influence of the demonic. If you begin to blur badly the distinction between yourself and your non-Christian neighbor by doing what he does and putting yourself in his frame of reference, then you are toying with something that will erode your relationship to Christ. Paul says, "What is sacrificed on pagan altars is offered to demons, not to God. And I do not want you to be partners with demons." Paul is telling us we have to recognize that we are part of a distinctive, different, differentiated community of people, and that however much we might like just to play along with the crowd in order to get along, we are about to fall headlong into a demonic trap.
As you and I this weekend think about our nation and our place in it, we will doubtless hear a good deal of talk about American as a Christian nation. Somebody will talk about a nation under God; somebody else will call for more Bible reading in the public schools. Did you know that once someone even introduced in Congress a bill that would recognize Jesus Christ as supreme lord of the United States? Well, at first blush that might sound attractive to you and me, but it just wouldn't be the truth, would it? We are not a Christian nation, because we are not a nation of Christians. We are a nation of Christians and Jews and believers in other faiths, we are a nation of unbelievers and of believers in everything. If you don't believe me, just turn in the yellow pages to the category "religious organizations," and that will barely scratch the surface. If you still do not believe me, drive the full length of 16th Street and sample the bewildering variety of American beliefs as expressed in our worship buildings. And again, that's only the beginning. We are not a Christian nation, never have been, not when at the time of the American Revolution only 5% of the population belonged to any church; not when the framers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution found it much more comfortable to talk in vague and abstract terms about Providence and about Nature with a capital N than to talk about the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let's not get caught up in rhetoric about a Christian nation; I do not believe there is any such thing, to tell the truth.