In this case, the “one little thing” is the letter E.
In itself, it may be a minor matter.
But when you’ve watched the denomination you’ve loved and that you labored and prayed, in your own small way, to help birth, as it slides deep into error through a profusion of “little” things, one little thing is just one more thing.
And that one little thing points out how desperately the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) needs reform and renewal. (Which I pray for regularly.)
The E in question was called to my attention this past Sunday morning at breakfast. Our daughter, who was to read the Bible lessons in worship, was going through them one more time when she saw something she hadn’t noticed before.
Our lessons for each week, which are largely taken from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), are printed on bulletin inserts published by the ELCA Publishing House, Augsburg Fortress. The inserts are called Celebrate. On the inserts, each of the lessons is preceded by brief explanations. Those explanations, which are meant to be read during worship just before each of the lessons is read, are designed to give context to the Bible passages. They’re often helpful. (The explanations also appear in an annually published book called, Sundays and Seasons.)
Here’s what our daughter saw when she read the introductory explanation for this past Sunday’s first lesson, Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18:
The book of Daniel was written in the second century B.C.E., when the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes was severely persecuting the Jews. Daniel’s vision of the four beasts serves to proclaim the message that human kings will come and go, but the kingdom will ultimately belong to God and to God’s people.“What’s this E doing after BC?” our daughter wondered.
“Is that a mistake?” my wife asked.
“No, it’s not a mistake,” I said. “But it shouldn’t be there!”
The old designations of B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, Latin for Year of Our Lord), have been replaced in most contemporary scholarship and journalism by new designations. B.C.E. stands for Before [the] Common Era, while C.E. stands for [the] Common Era.
And you know what? I get that. Christians, varied and as numerous as we may be, members of the fastest-growing religion in the world, are still just one group among many who occupy this planet. We live in a world whose most enlightened people eschew cultural, racial, or religious imperialism, a world in which diversity is celebrated. And as a Christian, I embrace this trend. In fact, I pray for it to continue.
I think that this trend favors a project very dear to me, the central calling of all Christians: fulfilling the great commission Jesus has given to the Church. We’re to make disciples—followers of Christ—among all peoples.
In looking at history, I see that Christianity first spread not in the artificial hothouse of being the favored religion of an empire and not just in defiance of state condemnation and persecution, but in the context of theologically diverse societies, where people believed in many different gods and philosophies. History, to me anyway, shows that true pluralism and democracy always favor Christianity; when people are free to explore differing beliefs and come to know the relationship with God offered by Jesus Christ (as opposed to the "religion" offered elsewhere), following Christ will always look good. The more diverse, pluralistic, and free societies are, the more likely people are to become disciples of Christ.*
But, to me, pluralism and diversity are good for another reason. In a nutshell, Christians shouldn't even appear to be throwing their weight around, forcing their faith and worldview down other peoples’ throats. It isn’t right. It isn’t how Christ won disciples. It’s unloving. And it sets the cause of Christ back, not forward.
And so, though confessing that part of me cringes a bit every time I see “B.C.E.” or “C.E.” in books and articles from the fields of history, science, or the arts, I understand the use of these terms.
I accept it.
I even support it.
Nothing about the faith of Christians should be forced on others. People who subscribe to other religious convictions and people who have no religious convictions should not be forced to see history in terms of what happened before Christ or after He came to earth bringing the reign of God. Non-Christians don’t see what the theologians call “the Christ event,” as the center of human history.
But, here's the point: We Christians do! We see Jesus as the center of our history. We see Jesus as the center of all history!
When Christians read the Old Testament, we see the God of creation, by grace, calling a people—the Jews—to believe in Him, to become a light to the nations. We see prophecies pointing to the Messiah Who would come into the world to offer, by grace, new and everlasting life to all who believe in Him. For the Christian, everything before Christ, points to Christ.
In the New Testament, we see God becoming flesh, living in our world, being spurned by Jews and non-Jews alike, bearing the sins of the whole human race on His shoulders, dying for our sakes, and being raised to life again by the Father, so all who repent and believe in Jesus, will live forever with God. After Jesus died and rose, we believe, everything changed. The lives of all people were marked by new possibilities. "If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Christians believe that, after the fall of humanity into sin, all of human history has been the theater in which God has worked for the time—what the Bible calls God’s kairos time, as opposed to chronos, human or chronological time—when Jesus Christ would enter the world, bring the reign of God to all who believe, promise that one day, He will return and make all things new, and, in this intervening time--in these Years of Our Lord--will fill those who follow Him with the Holy Spirit, fortifying them for lives of loving God, loving neighbor, sharing Christ in words and actions, and living "in the sure and certain hope" that even though we die, we will still live with God for eternity.
The timeliness of God’s action in Christ is emphasized by the apostle Paul in the New Testament’s Romans 5:6: “…while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…”
In another New Testament book, Hebrews, which is a sermon preached to Jewish Christians in the first century, we see this Christian confession of Christ as the center, the goal, and the fulfillment of human history, of cosmic history: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds” (Hebrews 1:1-2) (emphasis mine, of course).
Since we Christians believe that Christ is the center of history, why would a document prepared by a Christian denomination for use in Christian worship shy away from the use of the terms, B.C. and A.D.?
And why do some professors who teach at some seminaries of the ELCA “correct” students who use B.C. and A.D., rather than B.C.E. and C.E.?
Why should Christians be in any way wary of making the inherent confession of Christ as the center of all by using B.C. and A.D. in their own internal communications or in their public worship?
Why should we avoid declaring Christ’s Lordship? Jesus didn't avoid it!
He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
He said, "The Father and I are one" (John 10:30).
He also said, “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33).
And He said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:16-18).
If Jesus claimed to be the Lord of everything, the center of history Who changes everything, the only access point to God, the liberator of humanity from the enemies of sin and death, then why should the Church claim anything less when speaking of Him? Why should we be shy about Christ's Lordship?
Is this “shyness” mere political correctness?
Is it absent-minded acquiescence to a cultural norm?
Or is there something more sinister about it?
Whatever the answers to those questions may be, the “little things” keep piling up in the ELCA. The Lordship of Jesus and the truth of God’s Word seem denied in numerous little ways all the time among us. When it doesn’t make me mad, it makes me sad. Then it makes me pray. (And write blog posts.)
You see, it isn’t really such a little thing, after all, because, no matter how many little things get piled on, the Bible still says of Jesus, the center of history, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
It may be a single letter E. But its addition to B.C. says a lot about the state of the ELCA and what at least some of its most influential people really think about Jesus.
The early Church faced persecution and death to declare that Jesus is Lord. Many Christians in many parts of the world today face the same threats for their faithfulness to Jesus as Lord. So, why can’t we North American Lutherans own Jesus’ Lordship in the comfort and safety of our sanctuaries as we worship? That’s a big question. And every member of the ELCA must, I think, eventually answer it.
*I speak from personal experience. For about a decade, I considered myself an atheist, but, in a pluralistic society in which I was free to explore other possibilities, Christ wooed me into relationship with Him.