Sermon: A Letter from Italy
Dear Church Family,
Ciao from Italy! I’m writing this at noon on Saturday your time. It’s dinner time in Italy. Tomorrow I will get on the plane before some of you even went to bed last night, and I will be somewhere over the ocean between Germany and the US while you are hearing this message.
Sundays are difficult for me in Italy. I spent last Sunday at a Truffle Expo. The city of Alba doesn’t expo the delicious, chocolate truffles we’re used to… they expo the hunted-by-pigs truffles that cost hundreds of dollars for a few ounces of fragrant fungus. While we were drinking coffee in Alba, I looked at the clock, and Alex must have seen something wistful in my face. It was 11 o’clock in Bois D’Arc. Although I was enjoying the company and the outing, the hours in which I would normally be worshipping God with you are spent with difficulty and longing in Italy. He said, “they’re okay.” I knew that, but I wished I was in church.
When I am in Italy, I am constantly reminded that I am in a Catholic country. Sometimes the reminders are pleasant, such as:
- I pass a church every time we take a walk. Sometimes two churches. Sometimes more.
- Every hilltop and every village we pass in the car has a recognizable church.
- Church bells ring across the city.
- This week, a nun brushed pass me in the open market.
- At the dinner table a few nights ago, Alex’s dad taught me to say “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” in Latin.
Catholicism is everywhere in Italy. It’s part of the culture. You see it in the churches. You hear it in the bells. You feel it in the guilt. When a news story breaks, it is completely normal that the television announcer interviews a priest about the church’s view on the story. Catholicism is everywhere… just like the scent of truffle.
We bought a truffle for Alex’s dad at the Truffle Expo last Sunday. Truffles stink. I mean, they reek. They are fragrant to the point of gag. We’ve eaten truffle at two meals. At each one, I have had to ask Alex to limit my truffle shavings to the least possible quantity. I have to eat some so as not to appear rude, but I have to eat as few as possible, lest I gag at the table (and thus appear even more rude). If you eat truffle on Monday, you will smell it all day Tuesday and possibly even into Wednesday. It’s like a smell you can’t get out of your noses.
If we read Paul’s letters, (which, by the way, were read to the churches in much the way this letter is being read to you) we get a sense that early Christians were not exactly embraced by the Roman government. We know there were persecutions of Paul and other disciples of Jesus Christ. The Jewish leaders weren’t exactly thrilled with the disciples either. They weren’t exactly thrilled with Jesus when he was alive! He either converted them to a new way of life and faith or he repulsed them with his ability to draw crowds and break the rules that composed their faith.
Officially, the persecution of Christians by the Roman empire began in 64, approximately 30 years after the death of Jesus. Disciples of Jesus Christ went through periods of both tolerance and persecution, and in the early 300s, faced their worst persecution yet. When Constantine became the Emperor, however, he had a different view of Christians because his mother, Helena, was one! In 313, he issued the Edict of Milan which allowed Christians and other people in the Empire the right of free religious choice.
I was in Milan yesterday. I smelled truffle from the meal the night before. I smelled Catholicism in the air… because Constantine and his successors didn’t stop at legalizing Christianity. They made the step to enforcing it, eliminating opportunities to worship in other ways. There were wars, crusades, persecutions, inquisitions as Christians became the dominant power in empires of the world. Have you notice that I’ve stopped using the word “disciple”?
In Italy, where all is Catholic and it is everywhere, I am reminded that discipleship isn’t about power or government or officialness. That’s not what matters. It’s not whether we have crosses or the ten commandments posted in court rooms or words added to our pledge of allegiance. It’s not about the words on our money or the religion of our leaders. It’s not about what we give to Caesar. It is not about whether our country smells like Christianity.
It’s about who Jesus is to us, and, truly, this is an individual question. Is he a prophet? Is he John the Baptist, the guy who brought you to a point in which you decided to change your life? Is he Elijah, who showed you the truth in a moment when you were lost? Is he the messiah, the chosen, annointed one? Or is he someone who matters every day? Does he effect how we are, or has he effected WHO we are?
Sitting at the dinner table, learning Latin from Alex’s father (because Latin is the language of the TRUE church), I saw the truffle approaching for the first time and was afraid. The smell of the outside is so strong. The inside, though, smelled different, and when I tasted it, I was surprised that it was almost tasteless. It was more of a smell than a taste. It was a fragrance, not a flavor. It didn’t run all the way through.
Christians in our country lament that we don’t have enough of the scent of Christianity in our nation. No, we don’t have public prayer in schools anymore. If you think about it, that only works if a country has only one religion and all the teachers are adherents. In other words, you might be fine with your kids’ teacher praying before class, until your kids had a Jehovah’s witness as a teacher, or a Muslim teacher, or a pagan teacher.
No, we don’t have crosses or the ten commandments posted in our courtrooms. No, you are not assumed to be Catholic or Christian or anything. But as a disciple, you don’t need to lament the lack of the scent of Christianity. You are free. Free to take up his cross and follow him. Free to taste like you smell, if you get my drift. It’s not something an empire or a country can decide because then you are left with just the scent of Christianity and not the path of discipleship. I don’t think Jesus ever saw following him as a national pastime. I think he knew that wasn’t going to work. When he talks to individuals about their discipleship, he talks to individuals. He asked them, he asks us, “Who do YOU say that I am?”
“Who do YOU say that I am?”
As we drove past Milan yesterday, Alex exclaimed when he saw a bumper sticker that said, “Jesus first.” That’s weird in Italy, and it was the first individual expression of faith I’d seen. Religious bumper stickers are normal in the US, but extremely odd in Italy where your religious belief is assumed as part of your citizenship. It made me smile. A counter-cultural expression of discipleship in a country scented with Christianity. I wanted to pull the guy over and talk to him.
The discipleship of Jesus Christ does not belong to a certain country, no matter what the beliefs of its founders or leaders. It belongs to the heart of the believer and to the messiah who touches their hearts every day. God comes to us as individuals through Jesus Christ and says, “Come, follow me.” When he asks us, “Who do YOU say that I am?” before the Father, may our answers show that he mattered to us every day and that our discipleship runs all the way through us. Amen.