“By your endurance you will gain your souls.” (Luke 21:19)
For those living in Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E. – the unthinkable happened as Rome responded to insurrection by sacking the city, enacting horror and brutality among the population. The Temple – the symbol of God’s eternal presence among God’s people and the center of faith and culture – was destroyed. Not one stone was left upon another (Luke 21:6) . What was thought of as eternal and unmovable was literally left in ruins. It was the most devastating of times. The shock and question on many people’s minds, hearts and lips would have shouted in lament, “Had God forsaken them?”
The history of the Jewish people since the sacking of Rome has been one of endurance and fortitude in midst of persecution, pogrom, holocaust, discrimination and dispersion from their homeland. While this passage is directed at the followers of Jesus, it is no secret that Christians are responsible for much of the hate and ill treatment of our Jewish neighbors. Occasions for reading this story – offer a time for remembrance and repentance. It is a time to seek others to share in both sorrow and joy in our shared humanity.
In our global age where religious persecution of any community of faith can happen anywhere; there are repercussions of dehumanizing hate and violence everywhere. Our witness as Christians calls us to renew the bonds of our shared humanity, compassion love and service whether or not our neighbors share in our tradition or not. Listening and learning deepens our understanding of others and of ourselves.
As the four Gospels in the New Testament were all most probably written decades after the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. – passages like this one served to encourage followers of Jesus not to lose heart when things looked bleak. For those first disciples (and the first few generations of what was becoming the Christian movement), there was no certainty whether the struggling church would survive or not. There was a great expansion as followers of the Way reached beyond Jerusalem and Judea and communities bringing together both Jews and Gentiles alike sprang up across the Roman world, but the Empire also responded with persecution and violence, resulting in death and martyrdom of many believers. It was not a safe thing to be a Christian. The apocalyptic hope of Christ’s imminent return provided courage and hope in the bleakest of situations as the church comforted one another and proclaimed a message of the crucified and risen Christ’s ultimate rule of both heaven and earth. The Temple might be torn down, you might be betrayed by loved ones, you may be persecuted, and your friends might be tortured and killed, but the message remained – “Jesus (not Caesar) is Lord.”
These are good reminders that when trouble comes, we are called to respond with faithfulness and endurance.
While on the worldwide stage the church is still rapidly expanding in places like Africa, South America and Asia, in the West the church is in precipitous decline. Churches sit empty (or are becoming more and more so). Active members are growing older. There appears to be less families and children who participate than in ages past. Communities beyond the church walls are less and less connected to these ministries because people have lost interest in what they offer as they have gotten busier; churches have become exclusive social clubs or nostalgic preservation societies; and outreach beyond the building is limited or seen as self-serving. Apathy is as dangerous as persecution (if not more). At least when there is persecution, the stakes are clear. In a culture that is less and less interested in institutions and organized religion, it becomes easy to lose heart for members and leaders alike.
Jesus speaks to this as well. Quick fixes always sound great in a consumer-oriented culture, and all kinds of people are eager and willing to sell them to struggling congregations. Success is often fleeting. Or the reaction becomes to build up the walls and resist change at all costs to protect what might be saved, but the stones are falling down faster than they can be erected.
What I see Jesus calling us to here is to admit that it is time to stop trying to save crumbling infrastructure and refocus our efforts on the practices of faithfulness. Endurance comes, not by resisting change or the culture but by knowing whose we are no matter what trouble or challenges we face; telling our stories, encouraging one another and revealing through our words and actions a perseverance rooted in joy and gratitude.
Let the Temples fall. Jesus is still there in the rubble waiting to embrace you. God willing, so will the church.