Historically speaking, there is only one reason that the Christian Church exists. At the death of Jesus, what few followers He had attracted were defeated, discouraged and very afraid. Their best bet was to scatter and make their way back to their former lives in Galilee or wherever they came from. There was no future for them among the Jews nor among the Romans, except possibly crucifixion.
And yet in 312 A.D., Constantine made a formal ‘conversion’ to Christianity and in 380 Christianity was named as the state Church of the Roman Empire.
The early Church was persecuted, and its history is littered with the corpses of thousands of martyrs. For about 200 years, it was very dangerous to publicly claim to be a Christian. Christians, because they would not participate in the paganism and the emperor worship of the Romans, were called the ‘enemies of mankind.’ In 64 AD, Nero blamed the fire of Rome on Christians and used Christians as human candles to light the streets. Persecutions and martyrdom were very common in the first centuries of the Church.
Yet it grew.
The reason the Church grew in the face of hatred, rejection, persecution and martyrdom was because Christians were convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead.
They were not afraid to die because they knew that there was more to life than this physical world. They were willing to share their goods and necessities with others because they knew that their God would provide for them. They hunted for abandoned babies and nurtured and adopted them. They stayed in cities when disease and plagues struck so they could minister to the ill and abandoned elderly. They took care of the ill, the destitute, the crippled and incompetent – all in the name of Jesus. They paid their taxes and served with honesty and integrity in their communities. They served in the military and in civil service. They were model citizens.
They did so because they were convinced that Jesus had conquered death by His resurrection and their faithful service to Him would someday be rewarded.
The resurrection of Jesus is the only reason the Church exists.
It was true in 30 AD, it was true in 312 AD, it was true in 1517 when Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door, it was true in 1740 when George Whitefield preached in the American colonies. It was true in the early 20th century when Billy Sunday preached in Oelwein. It is still true today – the only reason the Church exists is because Jesus is risen from the dead.
We sometimes do not appreciate what a great privilege it is to partake of the Church’s ministry. We don’t often appreciate the impact that the church has had in our culture, our civilization. When invaders burned Europe, it was Christian Monks who hid and preserved the writings of the Greeks and Romans. The university was the invention of the church. Gutenberg invented the printing press to produce Bibles more efficiently.
The Church has magnificently impacted music and the Arts. It was Christians who started the first orphanages. Public schooling was started by the Methodists in England to teach children to read so they could read the Bible. Modern science owes it inception to Christians who saw a created, orderly world. It was Christians who caused slavery to be outlawed in the western world.
Modern medicine, especially nursing, owes its existence to Christian women whose compassion was inspired by Christ (the ‘Red Cross’). Sociology began as Christians sought to improve the lot of immigrants. Our democratic republic was founded by people who could reconcile the inherent dignity of mankind with our capacity to evil. They saw mankind as created with dignity, but fallen and sinful, and yet redeemable by a gracious God. They learned that worldview from the pulpits of churches.
There are many dark moments in the history of the Church as well. But overall, the closer the Church adhered to the image of Christ, the more good it brought to the world.
When we ‘go to church,’ we are participating in a movement that is nearly 2,000 years old. A movement that has transformed Western Civilization and greatly impacted every part of the earth. (It is estimated that the typical Christian today is a charismatic woman who lives south of the equator.) The Church is the vehicle that has brought unfathomable blessing to the world.
We sing hymns that have endured for centuries. We observe rites that have reflected the Church’s commitment to the Risen Christ since its beginning. We hear preaching that announces the victory of Christ over the grave, over death, over evil. Preaching that calls us to serve God by serving our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ – and those outside the faith.
All because of an empty tomb outside the walls of Jerusalem in 30 AD.
The Rev. Dan Driscoll serves as pastor at the Evangelical Free Church of Oelwein.