The last Christian in Europe?

Text: Acts 16:6-5 (Lydia, the first Christian in Europe)

The first time I read today’s passage from Acts – this was eight years ago in a class in Toronto when I was studying to become a minister — I was puzzled. How could anyone be interested in the list of towns and regions to which Paul and Timothy travel in order to meet and baptize a rich merchant named Lydia?

How could it be useful for us to know that they went from Phrygia and Galatia to Mysia, then Troas and Samothrace, then Neapolis, and finally to Philippi?

What benefit could there be in knowing this itinerary or the strange news that the Holy Spirit forbade them to continue to preach in Asia, that the Spirit of Jesus prevented them from going to Bithynia, and that it was a dream that finally convinced Paul to travel across the Aegean Sea from what is now Turkey to Greece?

After puzzling over the reading, I was then struck by the realization that this odd bit of Scripture, like the rest of the New Testament, had been translated into every conceivable language under the sun and that it exists in billions of copies.

It is rare for a book to be translated unless it is a bestseller. The biggest bestseller of the last 20 years is the Harry Potter series, which has sold more than 200 million copies and has been translated from English into more than 65 languages. But this is nothing compared to the New Testament.

The New Testament has been translated from Greek into approximately 2500 other languages and there are more than five billion copies of it in print! There is no other set of books that even comes close to these figures.

Eight years ago in light of today’s reading from Acts, I wondered if all this effort was worth it. But now having read more about this passage, I understand why some in the church think the details are important. The itinerary of Paul and Timothy shows them sailing from eastern Asia, which is where the church was founded, to Macedonia, which is in Europe. This movement from Asia to Europe is why the church has paid attention to Lydia.

Lydia is revered as a saint in Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches who usually call her “the first Christian in Europe.” After the rise of Islam around the Year 700 and until the start of the Age of Conquest in 1500, Christianity was largely confined to Europe. Even 100 years ago, the majority of the world’s Christians lived in Europe. Lydia is a saint of European-based churches because she was the first baptized Christian on the continent.

Today, the situation of the church in Europe and the world has changed. Sunday attendance in Europe has plummeted and the majority of Christians live in Africa, South America, and Asia.

Some of this was detailed in National Geographic magazine last month in an article titled: “The World’s Newest Major Religion: No Religion.” France and the Netherlands will soon have a secular majority, and churches stand empty all across the continent.

Since the Fourth Century, the history of Europe has been bound up with the church.
The question then arises: can Europe remain European if is isn’t also a Christian? Even some who are not religious worry about this.

Today, I reflect on these anxieties in the light of the wishes of people in this congregation. The Worship Survey, which we launched on April 10, contains a lot of useful information. I am grateful that 15 people have completed the survey; and I encourage others to pick up a copy after the service or to follow the link from the “What’s the Buzz” e-newsletter to an online version.

Beyond complaints about our sound system and the lack of upbeat songs, there are many comments in the responses that reflect a desire to leave old traditions behind. This feeling is not universal. Like any self-respecting United Church congregation, Mill Woods contains views that range from conservative to liberal. But the non-traditional responses outweigh the traditional ones.

I appreciate these desires for innovation. Because of them, the Worship Committee may organize a brainstorming session where we can pool research, resources and ideas. Knowing where people are coming from will help us.

One thing we may leave behind are readings like the one today from Acts. I am glad to now know the reason why some church leaders find it important. But having preached on it, I don’t believe I will return to it. I am OK to not wonder who the first Christian in Europe might have been. Nor am I too concerned if one day there are no people in Europe who call themselves Christian.

For me, church is about pursuing a life of faith, hope and love more than it is about spreading Christianity. Like many who responded to the survey, I don’t participate in church for traditional doctrine or for greater biblical knowledge.

I come here seeking an experience of Divine Love; for inspiration on how to live into our sacred values in a complex world; for insights on how we can better love our neighbours as ourselves; for a space to mourn losses and celebrate joys; for fellow pilgrims with whom to reach out to the community and engage in struggles for justice; and as a place of belonging.

I pursue all of this as a follower of Jesus because the stories about him and the traditions that our ancestors built upon those stories help me to follow a path of dying and rising that describes all of our lives.

But I don’t think that Christianity has a monopoly on truths about Love or about death and resurrection. This is one reason why I am sometimes reluctant to call myself a Christian.

I am happy to pursue faith, hope and love on the Way of the Cross within the United Church of Canada with its deep roots in 1700 years of European Christianity. But this doesn’t mean we have to keep all of the concepts and rituals associated with that tradition to pursue Love in all its many colours.

Last Tuesday evening at a Presbytery meeting, I talked with a woman from Riverbend United Church who had recently walked the Camino de Santiago or Way of St. James in northern Spain. This medieval Christian pilgrimage has become popular in the last few decades, with more than 250,000 people now walking all or part of its 800-kilometre length each year, which is up from 1,000 people in 1985.

She confirmed what was reported in the National Geographic article — that most of the churches along the route were empty. Still, the popularity of the pilgrimage impressed upon her the hunger so many of us have to find a spiritual path in an increasingly secular world.

I find my spiritual needs met in the sacraments, stories, and songs that come from the tradition of Jesus as the Christ. But I see nothing exclusive in this path. I am aware that the books of the Bible — despite their profusion and the attention that has been paid to every detail in them — are human productions. I take the Bible seriously, but not literally, and not without a dose of common sense and modern skepticism. This helps me to not worry about some of the odd details.

Even if the church disappears from Europe – or from Edmonton – people will continue to search for God’s Spirit in things like pilgrimages, choirs, and movements for social change. People will continue to die to old ways of life and rise to born-again lives that are closer to Love. We will continue to seek faith, hope and love.

In this congregation, I pray that we will find new expressions of worship that fit better with this diverse, engaged and loving community in an ever more skeptical and intercultural world.

May it be so. Amen.

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