Although I’ve tended to blog here about conflicts between faith and science in the 21st century, or various contentious theological issues, it just doesn’t seem appropriate to do that this week. This is a special and unique time of year that takes us very far away from all that. A holiday that is certainly chock full of contrasts.
In the street, people singing Christmas carols and giving hand-outs to the less fortunate … in the toy store aisle, people engaging in fierce shopping combat as they fight over the last available action figure toy.
Two days ago, every road and parking lot jammed full of cars. Yesterday, both completely empty.
Here, people looking forward to gatherings with friends and family. There, people dreading gatherings with friends and family.
On the radio, a song about “Peace on earth, good will toward men“. On the TV, images from Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and Ferguson Missouri.
Next week we look forward in time to a brand new year full of hope and promise, but this week the whole world looks backward in time to an event that took place 2000 years ago. We focus our collective attention on the birth of one very distinct individual. One person out of the estimated 108,000,000,000 humans who have been born in the past several hundred thousand years, according to the Population Reference Bureau.
Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter’s son.
No legitimate dispute can be raised that he was borne. There’s just too much evidence: not just from friends and followers, but also historians and theologians of his time. And let’s not forget the testimony of the 1st century martyrs who lit the coliseums of Rome with their own burning bodies or were thrown to the lions because they chose not to deny their faith in him. How can anyone realistically ask the question any more of whether he might be only a mythic figure?
But that testimony and the conviction demonstrated by those 1st century people says more than just that he existed. They knew him to be a good teacher. And many of them told of how he healed people. But they also witnessed his arrest by the Jews and execution by the Romans. He was killed. They saw it. And what should the natural response of these people have been after that happened?
The first obvious response would be to conclude that they were wrong. Again. This wasn’t the first time that someone was put forward as a Messiah figure, or who gave nice speeches, did nice things, and who was then permanently silenced. And when each of those other leaders breathed their last, their following evaporated.
Another natural response would be to name a successor to fill the place of Jesus. His brother James, who later became a prominent figure in the new Christian movement, would have been an obvious candidate. Or perhaps one of the closest followers of Jesus … Peter or John?
But many didn’t take either of those two easy roads. Instead, they claimed to have seen Jesus resurrected. And not just his disciples … uneducated fishermen from his home town … who you might say were more emotionally invested in such a ruse. But also members of the Roman military (Cornelius), the Greek upper class (Luke, the physician), the Jewish leaders (Nicodemus), and even a prominent Jewish religious fanatic who furiously pursued Christians to the point of imprisoning or killing them (Saul of Tarsus, later named Paul after his conversion). And thousands of other people who would have only seen Jesus once when he happened to be ‘passing through town’, or who saw him from a distance as they sat in a crowd of listeners. And as ludicrous as this claim might sound, they backed it up with their lives. Many were tortured and martyred for their faith. All were ostracized from their Jewish relatives because of this new faith. For hundreds of years, to follow Jesus was to choose a life of hardship, denial, political powerlessness and even death. [yes, I’m fully aware that other religions have their martyrs too, but let me just point out the huge difference between choosing to give up your life rather than your faith, without hurting anyone else, versus choosing suicide as a weapon against other people]
Why make this choice? Unless you were convinced beyond any doubt that there was something more about this person named Jesus of Nazareth.
Another compelling aspect of this abrupt hundred and eighty degree turn in human history is the cultural context in which this took place: a Jewish setting. The Shema captures the central and defining belief of Judaism: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord, the Lord your God, is one Lord and you shall worship the Lord your God with your heart, mind, soul and strength, and him only shall you serve”. Jews heard this command at least once every day of their life, and it was heard at all their religious gatherings. The first two of the ten commandments stipulated that there are no other gods and that nothing physical can be fashioned to represent God. Anyone and anything that asserted divinity was seen as blasphemous (this was the only charge that carried any traction in the conviction of Jesus during his trial). Almost every member of the early Christian church was Jewish … was steeped in Jewish tradition … had deep Jewish roots and powerful Jewish ties. Their relatives, friends, neighbors and business partners were Jewish and would therefore cut them off if they betrayed this central, defining tenet. And yet these very same people had no trouble equating Jesus with God, and worshipping him. This is unfathomable in a Jewish world; nothing at all like people today deciding to become vegan, or to follow the teachings of Gandhi, or even to announce that they’ve suddenly turned to Buddhism. This kind of decision completely disrupted one’s life; it was in part the motivation for Saul of Tarsus to hunt Christians down. But even he ended up embracing Jesus as the Son of God, and became the most powerful advocate of this new religion. How does one explain that?
And here we are two millennia later, and his following has spread around the globe. To every nation. Every race. Every social group. Rich and poor. To those enjoying life, and those despairing of life. The highly educated and those not. There are no boundaries that get in the way of the teachings of Jesus Christ.
In his name, people give billions of dollars to feed the poor, give help to the sick, clothe those who need covering. They raise massive relief efforts when disaster strikes a distant nation, even one endorsing a different religion, or no religion at all. They build hospitals, schools, orphanages. [yes, others have done horrible things in his name, but that’s a red herring … there’s absolutely no basis anywhere within the teachings of Jesus for those acts, and I’m not going to divert the message of this blog by dealing with that forgery at this time]
Who would have known, back in the year zero, how the seemingly unimportant events unfolding around them at that time were setting the stage for such a history-making change? What driving force is behind this kind of movement to follow him? Why are so many people compelled to embrace his teaching, and so many others compelled to reject or even oppose it?
These are indeed questions worth finding answers to. I hope you’re asking them too.
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