In the beginning was Jesus. A man with a simple vision statement: to live a human life exemplifying the character of God. So he was probably more than a little exasperated when Philip said: “Show us the Father.”
He had a few committed followers, and many more who traveled around to hear him teach and watch him live out his vision.
He didn’t set up any plans for a structured system for keeping his vision alive within his followers after he died. He didn’t even dictate or write out his memoirs.
The echoes of his voice had hardly died out after he left the earth before his followers had begun to create a system for keeping his message alive.
Of course, they were following a tradition hundreds of years in the making. From the early days of the Jewish people’s experience of dealing with the Divine, they had Pomp and Circumstance. Commandments, sacrifices, offerings, traveling sacred space, and then the permanent temple. Gold, holy days, Sabbaths, festivals, and hierarchy. Politically they had moved from a theocracy to a monarchy.
Then came the disruption of foreign oppression, captivity, and trying to keep the faith alive in a strange land. The temple had been back home in Jerusalem, and now it was destroyed. They were miles and miles away, so they needed to establish new systems for remembering their God.
Synagogues developed—places where history could be remembered, the writings could be read and expounded on, the past kept alive until the temple could be rebuilt. By the time the people were back home, this system was alive in Jewish communities everywhere, and even worked well back in Israel.
So, when the followers of Jesus got together to talk about what Jesus had taught, they had this structural system already in their DNA.
The converts from Judaism to ‘The Way’, and even converts from the Roman Pantheon all came with similar religious institutional experience. Starting a new religion with its sets of rules and observances wasn’t a conscious choice. It just flowed from the systems already in place.
The Jews met in the synagogue, particularly on the Sabbath. We’ll start our own meeting places, and meet on the first day of the week.
They had their sacrifices and observances, we will celebrate the Eucharist.
They had their statement of faith (Hear O Israel, the Lord is One). We will develop our own list of things we believe to be true about Jesus. If you agree, you are part of us.
They had systems of leadership and a priesthood. Paul helped develop a system of bishops, pastors, etc.
It all made sense, especially from their background and experience.
And that was all within the first few years.
Although the Roman empire was initially the enemy, by the time of Constantine the church and state had become best of friends. The church had taken on a decidedly Empire-like structure and authority. The office of ‘Caesar’ was replaced by ‘Pope’, with all of the levels of governance needed underneath. Palaces and ornate places of gathering and government were replaced by cathedrals and the like. Oaths of allegiance and creeds became the way to keep the faith pure, or at least consistent.
Fast forward through centuries of refinement to the time when protest, division and separation became the new definition of what is the church.
As if one set of structures, doctrine and practice wasn’t far enough removed from the simple (but potent) teachings of Christ, now we had an ever expanding list of off shoots. Each quite sure that they are closer to the fundamental truth than anyone else. Each feeling that it is their responsibility to let the others know how they are wrong, and to continually narrow the definition of who is a ‘true believer’. Each much more concerned about doctrine than daily life. Each more convinced than ever that pure doctrine is the only vital ingredient of being a part of the right religion. Each promoting the importance of this ‘right belief’.
And over the centuries, we haven’t done much to separate the Siamese twins of church and state. In many places religion is still in bed with empire, and neither is willing to admit it.
So here we are today. This is how we got here from there.
But what an infinite distance we have traveled from the teachings of Jesus. The one who told us to “Follow me”, the one who gave us only 2 commandments: Love God, and love each other.
He didn’t come to establish a new religion. Sure, he was quick to point out the many shortcomings of the old one, but didn’t put his energy into building a new one.
He announced The Kingdom. A new paradigm which he spent his time living and teaching. A way of life that he invited people to follow. A radical lifestyle that we are still invited to live out.
But it isn’t really that simple. We can’t just jettison church denominationalism, and figure that we now have what Jesus wanted.
If Jesus didn’t give us a detailed schematic for constructing a new religion, what did he have in mind?
Was he planning for his message to die with him? That doesn’t make sense.
So what was his plan? Would he have hoped that his kingdom message would bring about a utopia, that as individuals changed, society would change in an onward and upward spiral towards perfection?
That would be a wonderful dream, but Jesus certainly knew the weaknesses of humanity. Just as friction slows down a moving object, so the selfishness of humankind stops us from reaching the ultimate perfection of the whole world bearing the likeness of God. The great kingdom lifestyle of ‘otherliness’ gradually morphs back into ‘me first’.
Jesus said: “I will build my church.” (Gk. Ecclesia—meeting, congregation, assembly, synagogue.)
He said: “I am leaving, but I will give you my Spirit.” because he knew that we couldn’t do it on our own.
He left his message in the hands and hearts of 12 guys who were only beginning to catch on. Maybe his death was premature—if he had had more time with them, he could have been able to more completely instill his message within them. Maybe a new religion was OK, it just needed a different flavor or style than what did develop. Maybe instead of a new religion he wanted to permeate all religions with his universal kingdom message.
However it appears to you, here we are a couple thousand years later. The baggage of those 2000 years is a bit heavy, and not just a bit unwieldy. We need more than a luggage trolley to deal with it. Maybe a couple sticks of dynamite might be more appropriate.
I’m very grateful for people who are nudging and nagging us to go back to Jesus’ message and example. Whatever ‘church’ means to you, make sure it doesn’t take up so much space that there’s no room for a life of love.
Stained glass windows and scripture texts and baptisms and choirs all have a place in our collective history.
They can inform our effort to follow Christ…
or confound it.
They can serve that lifestyle…
or get in its way.
Let’s just remember Jesus, and continue to figure out what it means to be his follower. And not spend all our energy fortifying our defenses against someone else who is also trying to figure out how to be a Christ-follower.
This message of Jesus is still alive two millennia after Jesus’ words and actions echoed across Palestine. So it still has the inherent power to continue to change us.
And the rest of the world.
Thanks be to God!
5 hours ago