Religion is social. Religion is corporate. Religion is political.
As Christianity spread in the time of the apostles and beyond, it was often not the work of one-on-one conversations and personal confessions of faith, but of corporate conversions… of whole nations turning from one religion to another.
I did some reading this week about the reformation in Norway in the 16th century. Up to this point, Norway had been a Catholic country… being converted in the 9th century through the faith of Olav II, their beloved king who was later sainted.
But with political allegiances changing, suddenly a union between Denmark and Norway was on the horizon. And Christian III, king of Denmark was lining up to take his place on the Norwegian throne.
The problem… Christian was a Lutheran. He had been taught by Lutherans. He had even traveled as a young man and heard Martin Luther speak in person. And so his goal was to establish his kingdom as a protestant haven.
The first step, of course, is to get rid of the Catholic leadership. In 1536, the Catholic bishops were kicked out and replaced with Lutheran bishops appointed by the new king. Archbishop Olav Engelbrektsson tried to resist these reforms and keep Norway from being united with Denmark. There was even talk about establishing Christian’s younger brother John as king… since he remained favorable to the Catholic faith. The Archbishop tried to do everything he could to resist the change, even helping to plan the assassination of an earl who was traveling to Norway to discuss the union. Engelbrektsson ended his days in exile.
While all of this was going on in the realms of bishops and earls and kings… What do you think the everyday person was thinking. Overnight they were transformed from Catholics to Lutherans. They didn’t have a say in the matter, they may not have even noticed a real difference. They were converted, wholesale, as a group.
In our world today, this makes no sense to us. Faith is so private and individualized. We make our confessions and trust in a personal Lord and savior.
But historically, this is the exception and not the norm. For much of history, faith has been a corporate… A communal experience. Your religion was based upon the faith of your father or master or lord or king. Your flavor of Christianity was not based upon the nuances that you chose, but the political affiliations and personal whims of someone higher up the food chain.
We could argue for days about whether it is better for faith to be personalized as it is today in our nation, or a corporate experience as it still is in some places today.
We certainly have known the advantages of being able to have our own say about our faith. You can know our God personally… you can turn to the scriptures and can find out for yourself what they contain. You get to decide whether or not you join the church or go to church
But I believe this isn’t an either/or question. There are some things about having a communal expression of faith that we have lost. As we dive into this chapter of Acts, we might be able to figure out how not to throw the baby out with the bath water.
David Matson argues that we could see the entire book of Acts as a story about houses…. We start out the narrative with the disciples gathered together in a house and the story ends with Paul under house arrest on an island, telling the stories of faith to those who will come and visit.
Then, throughout the journey of the disciples, they travel from house to house, sharing the faith they have received. We have heard of Peter and Cornelius, Paul and Ananias… and here in this chapter Paul and Silas meet up with two different families in the city of Philippi.
One of these households is led by a woman named Lydia. The bible tells us she is a dealer of purple cloth – a wealthy woman trading a rare luxury commodity. We know nothing of her husband, but she does well enough for herself that either he isn’t around or isn’t relevant to the story. She is the head of the household. And when she hears the story of salvation in her place of prayer by the river, she invites Paul and Silas back to her home and her whole household is baptized.
The second household conversion happens after a Roman jailer experiences a miracle. He had locked Paul and Silas up in jail under strict orders to keep them secure. When an earthquake shakes their bars loose in the middle of the night – he is convinced his life is over. With the prisoners escape, he will be punished and killed. Just as he is about to end his life – Paul calls out from the cell… they had not left, even though they could have.
The jailer is so overwhelmed that he wants to know about the faith that has sustained them in difficult times, the faith that has allowed them to be so calm in the midst of distress. He takes the two back to his home and he and his entire household are saved.
What can we learn from these two tales?
First: Lydia and the soldier both experienced conversion outside of their homes…. but took their faith back home with them. And not only that… they took people back with them.
Now, it would be important here to mention what we mean by a household. In the Greco-Roman world, the household was the place of residence of a family, but also of all the slaves and grown children under the master of that household’s authority. The household could be rather large and encompassed all of a person’s business, social, and familial relationships. The pater familias had unilateral authority over his wife, his children and his servants.
This thing that they had witnessed – the story they had heard – it was too important to keep to themselves. As the heads of their households, they knew that this faith was not something that only belonged to them but it was meant to be shared. They opened up not only their hearts, but their whole lives to the power of God. They made sure that this new conversion in their lives extended to EVERY part of their life – their children, their wives, their servants.
When we experience faith and conversion, do we run home and tell our families? Do we share that faith with our employees? Do we allow God into every part of our life? Do we make room for him in our homes, in our work, in the places we go to socialize?
One way that we could reclaim this idea of household salvation is to simply open up our whole selves to his power…
Secondly, the scriptures tell us that their whole households were baptized. The act of baptism is personal. More than a blanket statement that a whole nation is now Lutheran instead of Catholic, to baptize a whole household means that each person would have come before Paul and Silas to recieve the water. Young and old. Rich and poor. Slave and free. The head of the household would have lined them all up and said – you are going to do this.
It sounds a lot like mom and dad getting the kids dressed up for church and dragging them kicking and screaming to the family pew.
But it was important in that time and place for the whole household to believe the same things. In the Greco-Roman world, your household worshipped one god among many. To bring in idols or religious artifacts related to another deity would have caused your primary god to be jealous. A master of a household would have had strict control over the faith of those under their authority.
That sounds harsh to us today, until we realize that every day we make choices about what our family stands for and what we consume.
We make choices about what food we eat, what television shows are allowed to be watched in our houses, what activities we will or will not participate in. For a family that is trying to eat healthy, McDonald’s french fries are strictly forbidden. For a family trying to instil good values in their children, much of MTV might be off the list. We set rules and boundaries every day and each of those decisions says something about who we are and what we believe.
We also practice in our tradition infant baptism. And when we baptize children, we are making promises on their behalf. We are holding their faith for them. We are making decisions about their relationship with God even though they are not even aware of God’s presence yet.
When we do so, we promise to raise them in the church, to hold that faith for them and to teach them until the day comes when they can accept or reject that faith for themselves.
Until that day comes, our job is to feed them properly (so to speak). If we believe it, we should live it, and live it in our whole lives.
If we think back to the tale of the Norwegian Reformation, the short version of the story goes: The King appointed a new Lutheran bishop. The old Catholic bishop appointed a new king… and as we all know from the Ollie and Lena jokes that we sometimes tell, the Lutherans won.
Someone, somewhere up the food chain made a decision about the faith of the people. And at the time, they had no say. At the time, they may not have imagined what it meant. But as time has gone one, Norwegians by and large identify themselves as Lutherans. They lived into the faith that was handed to them. They have claimed it as their own.
In the same way, our children and grandchildren might live into the faith that we hold if we continue to bring them to this place… if we nurture them in the traditions that have sustained us… if we lead them to the Christ we have come to know and love.
Your faith extends far beyond your life. It extends to all of your relationships. It extends to your family and friends and into every part of your life. Let Christ in. Let Christ change you. And let Christ have your relationships also.