by: Rev. Ed Schneider
A famous poet, John Milton, wrote a narrative titled “Paradise Lost.” Within the core of its lines, the reader travels from Genesis to Revelations experiencing a beautiful yet sad tale of the battle between the good and evil forces within the world around us and how it affects humanity’s better attributes: purity, righteousness and a loving attitude. It is truly a powerful mythological work that transforms those who read it.
The poem opens in hell, where Satan and his followers are recovering from defeat in a war they waged against God. They build a palace, called Pandemonium, where they hold council to determine whether or not to return to battle. Instead, they decide to explore a new world just being created, where a safer course of revenge can be planned.
Satan undertakes the mission alone. At the gates of hell, he meets his offspring, Sin and Death, who open the gates for him. He journeys across chaos until he sees the new universe floating near the larger globe, which is heaven. God sees Satan flying toward this world and foretells the fall of man. His Son, who sits at his right hand, offers to sacrifice himself for man’s salvation.
Meanwhile, Satan enters the new universe. He flies to the sun, where he tricks an angel, Uriel, into showing him the way to man’s home. Satan gains entrance into the Garden of Eden, where he finds Adam and Eve and becomes jealous of them. Folks, I’m telling you, it’s some great stuff, this John Milton poem.
The contemporary version of the Christian church finds itself very much in the category of “Paradise Lost.” Why? About 1,700 years ago, a Roman emperor named Constantine decided to make the Christian “faith” into a recognized and government-supported institutional church of the entire Roman Empire.
That one act of power, although impressive, was foundationally destructive to the process of “coming to Christ.” No longer would individuals be prompted to answer the “call of God” because the decision was already made for them. Their feeling, their understanding, their intellectual and spiritual reactions to a Divine prompting were now irrelevant.
In the twinkling of an eye, in one act of power, the whole fabric of the Christian faith journey was lost as it became a “state-sponsored” institutional Church. We went from the house-church, where we were free to exchange ideas and experiences, to a place where we were put into pews and told to keep silent so that order could be secured. We went from active participants to stationary listeners. We went from the 12 gods of Rome to the 12 Apostles of Christ. We went from personal professions of saving grace in God’s promises through Jesus to a completely haywire concept regarding class structures of clergy and laity. This is certainly not what the Christian revolution was intended to be.
A few years ago, I was preaching and teaching to several central European churches and Christian groups. At a cathedral in Salzburg, Austria, we experienced an unfortunately common occurrence. The Protestant Cathedral in Salzburg had a membership listing of approximately 4,000 people. Their average Sunday attendance was somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 people. It seems in the country of Austria, as well as much of Europe, you are required to “designate” what denominational affiliation you belong. At that point, “the state” assigns you to the closest church according to your residential address. If you are employed, then 10 percent of your income is taken out of your paycheck and automatically given to that denomination’s headquarters, and then it is distributed to the local church where you have been assigned.
A rather cold and calculating process, wouldn’t you agree? There is no “faith journey” in the process at all. There is no decision and the accompanying action to be taken by the soul who desires to connect to God’s love.
Some of our churches are no better off. We claim membership but do nothing with the privilege. We proclaim our never-ending devotion to a particular denomination and yet know very little about its roots and foundational expressions. We say we know there is a God but haven’t attempted to be in conversation with, or in service of, that same God … ever! We claim to believe in the Bible but never read it. We claim to reality. Paradise is a philosophy, not a practical action. Paradise, not unlike the “institutionalized” church, may seem all but lost, but God is still on be loving members of God’s gracious covenant of salvation and spend far too much time personally condemning others because they’re not the same as we are.
The Christian revolution has somewhere, somehow, and in some way, severely lost its Paradise. Paradise, if we believe in it at all, is now somewhere in the future … maybe.
Paradise has somehow transformed itself into a “concept,” not a the throne and still waiting to prove all of us wrong. God is still in the blessing business. God still has the manufacturing patent on the miracle process in force. God, not us, is still very much in the mode of glorifying mercy, grace and empowerment of those believers in Christ. If we can just get back to the basics of our faith journey, “Paradise Lost” may yet turn into Paradise FOUND.