Early Christianity, part two

One of the first challenges of the early Church came from the combination of Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ Jesus. The question arose: how many Jewish rituals and customs did Gentiles have to adopt to become Christians? Since the Jews were obeying commandments from God, were Gentiles required to obey the same commandments?” Or did the work of Jesus cancel some or all of the commandments God had made through Moses and the prophets? A meeting of Church leaders (described in Acts 15) resulted in a compromise that asked Gentile Christians to respect a few dietary restrictions, as well as sexual morality. Paul, using his authority as an apostle, later canceled all dietary restrictions, affirming what Jesus already had taught.

The question was not one of distinguishing different types of commandments from God, calling some ceremonial and others moral. Jesus Christ is the end of the Law, rescuing his people from all demands of the Law as well as from all punishments for breaking God’s Law. He fulfilled the Law for Jews and for Gentiles, granting freedom in the place of commandments. But Christians are not free to do whatever their sinful hearts desire. They are free, instead, to be the people God intended in creation. Therefore, Christians love God wholeheartedly and love their neighbors—they do not worship false gods and do not murder, commit adultery, steal, or lie. Christians imitate Christ, the sinless man. But where God’s Law pointed to Christ’s work by its ceremonies (circumcision, animal sacrifices, food restrictions based upon those sacrifices, and holy days), Christian freedom allows Christians to work together forming Christian ceremonies. Loving one another, Christians sacrifice their freedom to one another for their common benefit.

The second challenge came from Hellenistic Gentiles trying to blend the teachings of Jesus—and of Moses and the prophets—with Greek philosophy. Stoics saw reality as spiritual, with the physical world considered unimportant. Epicureans saw reality as physical, with all things dying and disintegrating—even the human mind or soul. Neither group had room for the Resurrection. Over time, some Hellenistic Christians developed new religions called Gnostic—a few of them used the label Gnostic, claiming to have special knowledge from God, but many similar groups are gathered under the same label by contemporary historians. Using the names of Jesus and his apostles, Gnostics taught a Hellenistic form of Christianity that viewed Jesus as a spiritual messenger from another realm, one who came to release sparks of divinity from the physical world and grant them true spiritual freedom. The cross of Christ was emptied of its power—one Gnostic writer pictures the body of Jesus nailed to the cross, while the spirit of Christ hovers overhead, mocking his enemies for thinking they could hurt him. Sin became a question of attachment to the material world; redemption became a matter of becoming truly and fully spirit. Gnostics tried to replace the New Testament writings with many other books (often attributed to Old Testament and New Testament figures) that denied the goodness of God’s creation, the redemptive power of the cross, and the resurrection of Christ and of his followers. These Gnostic writings are easily distinguished from the true apostolic books of the New Testament.

One powerful movement sometimes included among the Gnostics is Manichaeism. Its founder, Mani, blended Christian teachings with Zoroastrian beliefs from Persia as well as some Buddhist beliefs from India. Mani said that only one God exists, but Mani’s one God is opposed by an evil enemy who is his equal in power. The world is their battleground, and the war is fought within each person. Those who choose God’s path—a path of holy living, love for others, and care for the world—find salvation, but those who choose his enemy’s path—a path of selfishness and destruction—fall into eternal fire. Some modern Christian writings resemble Manichaeism more than they do the New Testament. Writings that picture Satan as king of hell, capable of successfully opposing God’s will in the world, are Manichean. Writings that suggest that human choices can determine the outcome of the war between God and Satan are Manichean. Writings that say that faith is a choice made by human individuals apart from the will of God are Manichean.

Along with these challenges to the Christian message came other struggles to understand the nature of God and especially the nature of Christ Jesus. Hearing of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, some people thought that Christians worship three gods. Others thought that the three names reflect a single divine Person doing different things at different times. Some thought that Jesus of Nazareth was adopted by God the Father, making him superhuman. Others (influenced by Hellenistic theology and by Gnostic leaders) thought that Jesus was a divine spirit who only pretended to be human. By the time of Constantine, a preacher from Egypt (named Arius) convinced many Christians that only God the Father is eternal and all-powerful; Arius said that the Son of God was created by the Father and is inferior to the Father. Constantine called Christian leaders together to resolve questions about the identity of Jesus as the Son of God. More than three hundred Christians gathered in Nicaea because of the Emperor’s request. They prayed together, studied the Bible together, and reached agreement. From their Bible study, they concluded that Jesus—the Son of God—is equal to the Father. They wrote a document, or Creed, which affirmed that Jesus is “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten—not made—Being of one substance with the Father.” Only three participants at this meeting disagreed with the Nicene Creed. This statement of faith became the measure of genuine Christian belief. It was called “orthodox” (meaning “right-thinking”) and “catholic” (meaning “united and existing everywhere”).

Later Church meetings further defined the orthodox and catholic Christian faith. All these meetings were based on sincere Bible study, seeking ways of expressing the truth about God and his messages. The Holy Spirit was understood to be God, equal to the Father and to the Son, a Person as the Father and the Son are Persons, yet united as one God, not three gods. Jesus was understood to be completely divine and completely human, so that anything said of the Son of God can also be said of the Son of Mary, and everything said of the Son of Mary can also be said of the Son of God. God was born in Bethlehem and placed in a manger. God was hungry, thirsty, sleepy, and tempted to sin (although he never sinned). God was nailed to a cross and killed. Yet the Son of Mary is almighty. He is present everywhere in the universe. He knows everything. He has the power to judge sinners and to forgive sins. The two natures of Christ cannot be separated, because only one Christ exists.

A European preacher named Pelagius offered a version of Christianity tainted with Manichaean and Gnostic beliefs. He suggested that every person maintains a spark of goodness that can please God with good works, can come to God, and can be accepted by God. Orthodox and catholic Christians insisted that (as the Bible says) all persons are dead in sin until God makes us alive by the power of his Word. We cannot find God, but Jesus our Shepherd finds us. We have no goodness in us until the redeeming power of God removes our sins and reconciles us to God. The early Church resisted these teachings, but they would return in later forms of Christianity. J.

Early Christianity, part one

Jesus of Nazareth designated some of his followers as “apostles”—messengers with authority to proclaim his word, to forgive sins, to perform miracles as he had done, and to declare his victory over all evil. Convinced by his resurrection that Jesus is the Christ—the promised Savior of the world, a visit from God to his people—the apostles began at Jerusalem to share the message of the Christ. Their audience carried their message to many parts of the Roman Empire. Soon the apostles themselves were preaching in the surrounding area. Traveling the roads built and protected by Rome, they carried their message throughout the Hellenistic world and beyond its borders into Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The apostles of Jesus preached first to Jews, then also to Gentiles. Roman civilization tolerated the Jews, in spite of their uniqueness. Jews worshiped only one God. They observed a holiday every seventh day. Their religion defined the food they ate, the clothes they wore, and many other details of everyday life. At first, Christianity was treated as another Jewish movement, like the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots. Because of its popularity among Gentiles, though, Roman officials began to take wary notice of the Christians. Rome was always willing to add one more god to the list of gods it worshiped. Persian and Egyptian gods had been added to the pantheon, as had Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus. The insistence of Christians that only one God is the true God, that they could only worship to one God and pray to one God, offended the tolerance sensibilities of the Romans. Fearing that the monotheism of the Christians might offend the gods, some authorities demanded that Christians pray and sacrifice to the Fortune of Rome. When Christians refused, they were imprisoned, tortured, and sometimes killed. Persecution of Christians was not consistent or enduring for the three hundred years between Christ and Constantine. Often Christians were tolerated and ignored. But some local officials, and a few of the Caesars, demanded uniform tolerance throughout the Empire. Christian intolerance of other religions made them suspect. For that reason, they were sometimes called to answer to the authorities, facing persecution if they remained faithful to Christ and to their one God.

Many Christians endured persecution, even to the point of death. Others fell away from the faith. When persecution ended, some of those who had denied Christ wanted to return to the Church. Their return caused a crisis among Christian leaders. Some leaders reminded the fallen that Jesus had said, “Whoever denies me before men, I will deny before my Father in heaven.” Other Christians reminded those leaders that the central theme of Christianity is forgiveness of sinners, that even the apostle Peter had denied Christ and had been restored to the Church. A compromise was reached in which fallen Christians could be accepted back into the Church, but only after they had endured a time of testing, or probation. Forgiveness was granted freely and unconditionally because of the suffering and death of Jesus. Church membership was allowed only after candidates had demonstrated their sincere repentance through good works, or penance. When asked about Christians who died before completing their penance, Christian leaders invented a condition called “purgatory” in which Christians could complete their penance before arriving in Paradise. Centuries later, these ideas of penance and purgatory would lead to a crisis in the Church, generally called the Reformation.

The apostles developed a pattern of preaching that centered around the person of Jesus. They mentioned his baptism by John, they described some of the miracles he worked, and they quoted some of his teaching, including his parables. The bulk of their message focused on Holy Week, from the Sunday when Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem through the Sunday he rose from the dead after his crucifixion. They also explained the relationship of these events to the teachings and history of Moses and the prophets and the consequences of those events to the lives of those who heard and believed the message about Jesus. Eventually, the apostles began to write letters to congregations containing the same message. Already in the first century, Jews and Christians agreed on a core of older writings from Moses and the prophets—called the Hebrew Bible by the Jews and the Old Testament by the Christians. Now Christians formed a New Testament to accompany the Old Testament. Already in the second century the official New Testament was being collected, although some variations of that collection existed into the fourth century. To be included in the New Testament, a writing needed to pass three tests. It needed to be written by one of the apostles (or by someone closely associated with an apostle—Mark, who wrote what Peter preached; Luke, who traveled with Paul and who interviewed eyewitnesses of Jesus; and James and Jude, the brothers of Jesus). It needed to be consistent with the message taught by the apostles and their followers. It needed to be known in all the major congregations of Christians, not only in one part of the Roman world. No conspiracy gathered the books of the Bible; consensus formed the canon (or list of approved readings) based upon those three simple rules.

Christian thought contained some diversity, including movements that went very much against the grain of what was said and done by Jesus and his apostles. In my next post, I will address some of those early Christian movements. J.

The historical Jesus

After Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, a theologian and historian named Dionysius began the custom of numbering years based on the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. According to Dionysius’ plan, Jesus was born in the year 1 A.D. (which stands for Anno Domini, the Year of the Lord); the previous year was 1 B.C., so there was no Year Zero in his system. Unfortunately, Dionysius made a miscalculation in his counting. We know this today because Herod the Great, the king who tried to kill Jesus, died in the year 4 B.C. Having this knowledge, we could correct Dionysius’ arithmetic so that it is now the year 2026, Columbus first sailed west in 1497, the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1781, and so on… or we can just live with the odd statement that Jesus was born around 5 B.C., which is what we have chosen to do.

Few historians today doubt that Jesus from Nazareth lived two thousand years ago, even if some Internet commenters and pop-up pages claim otherwise. Even though the name of Jesus does not appear in first century documents not written by believers, the very existence of those believers demonstrates a historical Jesus in the first century. While some have tried to dismiss the New Testament writings as inaccurate summaries of the life and teaching of Jesus prepared two or three generations after his lifetime, the New Testament writings are clearly based on an oral tradition that is anchored in the time of Jesus and in the first generation of his followers. Paul’s understanding of Christ and the Gospel was formed while many eyewitnesses were still available. Theories that discount the accuracy of the New Testament rest upon presuppositions that miracles never happen, that accurate knowledge of the future is impossible, and that people always manipulate oral tradition to accommodate their beliefs. None of these presuppositions are scientific or logical, and the third of them has been thoroughly debunked by recent studies of oral tradition in a nonliterate community.

 Historians agree, then, that a person called Jesus stands at the heart of Christianity. “Christ” is not a last name (Jesus was not the son of Mary Christ); “Christ” is a title that means the Chosen One or the Anointed One—kings and priests were anointed in Israel and were called christs or messiahs. In Nazareth he was Jesus son of Joseph; elsewhere he was Jesus from Nazareth. Though he was not part of the official teaching structure in first century Judaism, he did preach and teach. He emphasized the Law of Moses, making its commandments even more strict than the experts at the time were teaching. Jesus emphasized that anger at another person, to the point of shouting insults, is equivalent to murder, and that looking at another person for the purpose of lust is equivalent to adultery. At the same time, he countered the detailed analysis of the Law regarding details such as work allowed on the Sabbath and the ceremonial washing of hands. Jesus viewed himself as consistent with the teachings of Moses and the prophets. More than that, he identified himself as fulfillment of Moses and the prophets. His parables—which, on the surface, seem to be lessons about living property and loving one another—centered on his identity and on his mission to bring unconditional forgiveness to sinners. Unlike most holy people, Jesus associated with sinners and was honored by sinners. Jesus did not proclaim revolution against political and religious authorities. His proclamation of the Kingdom of God was defined by his testimony when he said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus called upon people to repent (to confess their sins and throw themselves upon God’s mercy) and to believe the Gospel (the good news of God’s mercy as delivered through Christ Jesus).

Jesus accompanied his preaching with miracles. He healed the sick, cast out demons, calmed storms, and raised the dead. These miracles demonstrated his power over nature as the Creator of nature. They revealed his compassion for people in need. They fulfilled promises given to God’s people through Moses and the prophets. They sampled what Jesus promises to do on the Day of the Lord when all the dead will be raised, all sicknesses will be healed, and all evil will be cast out of the world. Suggestions that gullible and superstitious people were tricked by Jesus, or that later tradition attached stories from other myths and legends to the person of Jesus, are countered by Christian insistence that Jesus himself, having been killed, rose from the dead. Following that resurrection, the opponents of Jesus could not produce his body and were limited to claiming that his disciples stole his corpse. But those same disciples, risking their own lives, insisted that Jesus had died and was risen. His resurrection was presented as evidence that Jesus is who he claimed to be—the Christ, the Son of God—that his promise to defeat evil and rescue sinners has been kept, and that the Day of the Lord is coming, a Day when Jesus will raise all the dead and will invite those who trust in Jesus to live within forever in a healed and perfected world.

The opponents of Jesus accused him of blasphemy—of insulting God by claiming to be God. If Jesus did not believe himself to be the Son of God and the Christ, he could have escaped condemnation and execution by saying so. Instead, he confirmed the truth of the charges against him. Needing Roman permission to execute Jesus, his opponents brought him to a Roman governor who had a different understanding of what it meant to be the son of a god. Governor Pilate would not have dared affirm charges against another Hercules, or any heroic son of any god. But Jesus’ opponents rephrased their charge. They chose the foulest word in Latin and said that Jesus claimed to be a king—Rex Jesus. For this he was executed by the Romans, who posted the charge on his cross: “Jesus from Nazareth, King of the Jews.” (This charge is often abbreviated in artwork to the letters INRI.) The shameful suffering and death of Jesus would be an embarrassing contradiction in most religions, but Christians affirm that Jesus endured the cross to pay the debt of sinners and to defeat the forces of evil. Christians teach that Jesus took upon himself the punishment sinners deserve so he could give in exchange the rewards he deserves for his perfectly obedient life. He is the only Son of God, but those who trust in him become God’s children. He is the only one without sin, but he bears the burden of all sins so those who trust in him are now clothed in his righteousness.

Jesus was a teacher about love and righteousness, but he was far more than just a teacher. Jesus was an example of sacrificial love and righteousness, but he was far more than just an example. As the Christ, Jesus defeated evil, and he shares his victory with all who trust in him. Jesus rescued sinners from the power of evil; he paid a ransom that ends the debt of every sinner. He established a Church to proclaim news of his victory and to share his forgiveness with all people. He is with his people always, and he will appear in glory on the Day of the Lord to finalize the work that he finished on the cross.

All this happened in a small region of the world during the time of Caesar Augustus and Tiberius Caesar, emperors of Rome. The accomplishments of those Roman Emperors are largely forgotten, save to a few professional historians. The accomplishments of Jesus, King of the Jews, continue to shape the world today. J.

A tent and a building

 For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling,if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord,  for we walk by faith, not by sight.  Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.  So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.  For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (II Corinthians 5:1-10)

              For centuries, thinkers and philosophers have tried to figure out what it is that makes us the people that we are. What is it that makes me me? What is it that makes you you? We have many words to describe that unique individual experience that belongs to each of us. We speak of the spirit, the soul, the mind, the heart, and the self. In India it is called atman; in China it is called chi. Some people think that only human beings have this individual self; others see the life force flowing through animals, through plants, even through rocks and rivers and mountains. Science has tried to find this self, but it cannot be located or measured or described scientifically. We generally assume that we have a soul or a spirit. Most religious descriptions of people include a soul or a spirit. It’s hard to imagine ourselves without a soul or a spirit. But the information we have about our souls and spirits comes, not from scientific investigation and study, but from the Bible, the Word of God. Since God created us, we willingly learn from him how we are made.

              Since we each have a soul or spirit, we want to know: what happens to that soul or spirit when we die? Does it disintegrate, as a dead body falls apart over time? Does it linger in this world for a while, haunting places as a ghost or a phantom? Does it come back again and again, born in a new body each time, experiencing the world repeatedly through history? God’s Word assures us that some part of us survives the death of the body. It does not return again and again—it goes somewhere to wait for the resurrection at the end of time and for the new creation. For believers, that waiting place is called Paradise. We are with Jesus in Paradise, in the hands of God the Father. For unbelievers, that waiting place is called Hades. The Bible describes Hades as an uncomfortable place, but it still involves waiting until the resurrection and the final judgment. On that Day Jesus will divide us into two groups, welcoming his saints into the new creation where we will live with him forever. The other group, the sinners who refused to believe in Jesus, will be locked outside of that new creation, stuck forever in the outer darkness.

              The apostle Paul describes our current bodies as tents. We are camping on a battlefield, dwelling in tents, surrounded by a world polluted by sin and evil. The only existence we know is life in these bodies, but we know that this life is temporary. Even if we survive in this world and make it to one hundred years, that century is merely a drop in the ocean of eternity. We have been promised eternal life in a better world, a world without sin and evil and death. We are looking forward to that new creation. We camp in tents today, but God has prepared buildings for us in the new creation, bodies that will last forever without sicknesses or injuries or allergies. Paul says that today we walk by faith, not by sight. Our hope is not merely to leave these bodies behind and to live as spirits with God in Paradise. Our hope incudes the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. We eagerly await our final destination, the new bodies God will raise from the grave, changing them so they will last forever.

              Today we cope with what we have. We take care of these bodies, these temporary dwellings, these tents. Consider how much time we invest in our teeth, our hair, our faces. We clean these bodies and then we cover them with nice clothes. We prepare food and eat food and then wash up after each meal. We give these bodies rest and exercise. We shelter them in buildings, and we keep those buildings at comfortable temperatures in the summer heat and the winter cold. God gave us these bodies. Good stewardship includes caring for these bodies, making them fit for the good works that God intends us to do in this world. But many people become obsessed with their bodies, their earthly tents. They forget that we have a heavenly dwelling, prepared by God. While we are in this tent, we groan. We are vulnerable to the many things that go wrong in us and around us in a sin-polluted world. We think about our health and comfort today and tomorrow, investing our time and energy in maintaining these current tents. Meanwhile, we neglect our purpose in this world. As Paul says, we should make it our aim to please God today. We will receive what is due us for the way we have served God while camping in these bodies. Stewardship is more than keeping our bodies fed and clothed and clean and healthy. Stewardship is also living actively in these bodies, loving God and loving our neighbors. Stewardship includes using these bodies to do good works, works that help the people around us and bring glory to God, because we are God’s people. We are Christ’s body, doing his work in this world.

              Doing good works is half the struggle. Camping on this battlefield, we also face temptations to sin. The devil and the sinful world around us are constantly showing us where we can do things for our pleasure rather than for God’s glory. The sin still within each of us would like to follow the path of temptation and sin rather than following God’s path. Different people are tempted in different ways. For some of us, the temptations are different at different ages, different stages of life. But temptation is always available. We aim to please God, but our aim can be diverted by the cloud of temptations that surrounds us.

              We have learned how to protect ourselves from viruses in this world. We wash our hands for twenty seconds; we wear masks in some situations. But how do we protect ourselves from spiritual danger? How do we purify ourselves from threats to the soul? We are under attack. We are constantly being threatened with evil. What mask, what sanitizer, will keep us safe from temptation?

              Martin Luther said this about temptation: you can’t keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair. Temptations will surround us as long as we live in this world. Jesus was tempted as we are. How we respond to temptation is what matters. We realize that we should just say no. Many times a day, that is exactly what we say. But it is one thing to say no; it is another to move on past the temptation and not linger in the thought and imagination of what we could be doing. Holding on to our anger can be as sinful as striking out in anger. Remembering and reliving a temptation can be as sinful as giving in to that temptation. But even when we resist temptation, the devil has not finished with us. He can still battle us with the temptation after we have said no. He can make us feel guilty for being tempted. When he tries that attack, we remind ourselves that Jesus was also tempted, that Jesus said no, and that Jesus has given us the strength to say no. We should not feel guilty for being tempted; we should only feel guilty for surrendering to the temptation, for sinning, or for hanging on to that temptation and enjoying the thought of sin.

              When we have resisted temptation, when we have moved on to good works instead of living in the temptation, Satan’s other attack is the sin of pride. He wants us to keep score of our goodness. He wants us to measure how good we are, how many sins we have avoided. When he has us measuring ourselves and taking pride in ourselves, he helps build barriers that separate us from God. Even though, at first, our aim was to please God, soon we are pleasing ourselves by our goodness. We will be in big trouble on Judgment Day when we stand before the throne of God, boasting in our goodness, because our goodness never will be good enough to bring us into God’s perfect new creation.

              We will receive what is due for what we have done in these bodies, these tents, whether we have done good or have done evil. But God’s standard calls for perfection. The smallest sin, the smallest surrender to temptation, can bar us from the new creation. When we think of that Day when we will stand before the throne of God, we must remember how Jesus prepared us for that Day.

              Jesus lived among us as one of us. Jesus resisted temptation in our name. Jesus lived the perfect righteousness that earns a place in the new creation. Jesus then exchanged lives with us. Jesus took upon himself the guilt for our sins. Jesus paid our debt in full on the cross. Jesus has sanitized our lives to make us pure and acceptable in the sight of his Father. What we receive on Judgment Day is shaped by the work of Jesus. God will see no evil in us, because Jesus has removed every sin. God will see only good in us, because Jesus has credited each of us with his righteousness.

              Paying attention to Jesus and not to ourselves, we begin to imitate Jesus. We do good things that help our neighbors and bring glory to God. Again, the devil tempts us to take credit for those good things, to focus attention on our selves, to forget Jesus and the changes he has made in our lives. Our growth comes, not from our efforts to imitate Christ, but from his power working within us. The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like seeds that grow. The seed is planted, it sprouts, it produces roots and stems and leaves; eventually a crop appears, whether grain or grapes or mustard or apples or figs. A healthy tree produces fruit: the fruit does not give life to the tree, but the tree naturally produces fruit if it is alive. In a similar way, a Christian life is recognized by good works. Good works do not create Christian faith—faith is God’s gift, and life and growth come from that faith. When we focus on Jesus, these good things happen in our lives. When we focus on ourselves and forget Jesus, whatever good we accomplish is tarnished with pride and self-righteousness.

              Jesus Christ defeated sin and all its consequences, including death. Jesus Christ grants new life to his people. Jesus Christ lives in us, working in us the good things that God had in mind when he created us. Jesus Christ also sustains us in this new life. As seeds, when they have sprouted, need sun and rain and soil and tending, so we need the continuing work of Jesus in our lives. We need his Word, which guides us and also gives strength for our faith to grow. We need his Church, as Jesus works in us to build our faith and to make one another strong in the faith. We need his Supper, as Jesus nourishes us by his own body and blood, removing our sins and guaranteeing us eternal life. God’s Holy Spirit, given to us as a guarantee of all his promises, works through the Word and the Church and the Sacrament to give us faith and to help that faith grow and remain strong.

              We are always of good courage. We live today in tents on a battlefield, at home in the body and away from the Lord. One day we will leave these tents behind—we will be with the Lord and away from the body. We will be with Jesus in Paradise. But the best is still to come. God has eternal mansions for us, new bodies that will live forever in a new creation. Our place there is guaranteed, not by what we do for Jesus, but by what Jesus has done for us.

The Axial Age and Israel

As I reported in this post, religious scholars tend to fall into two groups: some see religions as evolving over time, coming to more mature positions of faith, while others see religions as beginning with a common truth but straying from that truth in various directions. After choosing between those two options, scholars tend to interpret religious writings and practices according to those assumptions. They even assign dates to important events and writings based on those assumptions. The traditional dates given to writings and events in the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) are rejected by advocates of evolutionary religion; they are far too early to fit the pattern that supports the evolution of religion. Redating allows evolutionary scholars to fit traditional and prophetic writings within their own historic pattern, thus perpetuating a circular argument in which the theory determines the dates and the dates support the theory.

According to the figures given in the Hebrew Bible, the Exodus from Egypt occurred about 1446 BCE. The Israelite conquest of Canaan began forty years later, about 1406 BCE. This allows about three hundred years for Bronze Age Israel under Joshua and the Judges, culminating in Samuel and his anointing of the kings, Saul and David. David’s son Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, dedicating it in 957 BCE. From there we can trace the kings of Israel and of Judah, leading to the fall of Samaria (the capital of Israel) in 722 BCE and the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 587 BCE.

If the Exodus happened in 1446 BCE, then the monotheism of Pharaoh Ikhnaton came in the aftermath of the Exodus and was a response to the preaching of Moses and to the battles God fought against Egypt and its gods. Evolutionary scholars prefer to say that Ikhnaton came first and that Israel imitated his monotheism. If Zarathustra lived in Persia during the Axial Age, then he might have learned about monotheism from exiles displaced from Israel. Evolutionary scholars prefer to say that Zarathustra’s ideas contributed to the growth of monotheism among the Israelites and Jews. Many of the prophetic writings—even many of the writings attributed to Moses—are redated by evolutionary scholars to be created in the Axial Age. According to the traditional dates, only Ezra and Nehemiah (along with the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi) belong to the Axial Age. Moses and Elijah and Amos and Hosea and Isaiah preached and wrote earlier; even Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Daniel land just before the emergence of the Axial Age in China, India, Persia, and Greece.

Individual responsibility and personal accountability are important marks of Axial Age thinking. Earlier religious movements tend to be corporate instead of individual; they see gods working with families and clans and tribes and nations and with all of creation rather than stressing individual relationships with the gods. The Hebrew Bible presents a blend of corporate religion and individual spirituality. Throughout Moses and the prophets, God sometimes deals with his people as a whole but sometimes works with people as individuals. Scholars dissect writings attributed to Moses and the prophets, trying to place some writings before the Axial Age and others within or after the Axial Age. This dissection often overlooks the structure of the texts, ignoring the unity and organization of the writings to assign their ideas to different times and communities and to insist that the final form of these writings was achieved relatively recently by anonymous editors.

The real impact of the Axial Age in Israel can be found only after the time of Ezra. The priest Ezra helped to gather the Jews around God’s Word while Jerusalem and the Temple were being rebuilt. He read the writings of Moses to the Jews and led them in observing God’s commands. Ezra may be responsible for some of the editorial work that gathered and united the book of Psalms. He may have also gathered the writings of the Prophets and organized them into the books that are read and studied today. Ezra demanded faithfulness to God, faithfulness expressed in both communal and individual ways. Reading the ancient books of Moses, Ezra assured the Jews that these commandments and promises were as important to God’s people at his time and place as they were to the Israelites following Moses centuries earlier.

After Ezra died, Axial Age influences began to seep into the Jewish community. They were not isolated: they were first part of the Persian Empire, then part of Alexander’s Empire, then part of the Hellenistic world, encamped on the moving border between the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt and the Seleucid Empire in Syria. Hellenistic thought was Axial Age thought, strongly flavored by Greek philosophers and scientists. Jewish scholars studied the writings of Moses and the Prophets, and they began to apply them to individual life, separating them from the shared life of the community of God’s people. They took requirements out of the Temple—such as priests who washed their hands before offering sacrifices—and applied them to life in the Jewish home. They took the requirements of the Sabbath Day and established detailed regulations describing what is allowed and what is forbidden on that day. What they were doing, they described as “building a fence around the Law.” They remembered how their ancestors had violated the covenant God made with his people on Mount Sinai. Seeing themselves as living under the same covenant, they tried to ensure that they would not displease God as their ancestors had done. Instead, they would earn his favor by careful observation of all his rules.

Jesus of Nazareth was born in the midst of this Axial Age restatement of the holy covenant between God and his people. Jesus disagreed with the interpretations offered by the Hellenistic Bible experts among the Jews, people called “Pharisees” in the New Testament. Jesus demonstrated that Moses and the Prophets involved more than rules and regulations for God’s people: they offered the promise of a Savior, a personal visit from God, who would redeem his people, crushing the enemies of sin and evil and death. Jesus also claimed to be that promised Redeemer, a personal visit from God, come to claim his people and to bring them out of the wilderness into a Promised Land.

Many Jews trusted Jesus and followed him. Gentiles also came to faith in him. Experts in the Law opposed him. They resented his rejection of their interpretations of the covenant. They especially resented his promise to forgive sins, to be the Redeemer who rescues God’s people. They tried to destroy Jesus. Instead, they worked to fulfill the promises stated in Moses and the Prophets. Followers of Jesus, called Christians, preserved the Hebrew Bible, but they included with it writings of apostles who said that Jesus had fulfilled the promises of God and had created a new covenant to replace the one that was broken.

Christianity is not an Axial Age movement. In some ways, Christianity is a reaction against Axial Age thought. It restores the concept of a people of God, a community that is now called the Holy Christian Church. Yet Christianity also stresses individual responsibility and a personal relationship with God. Like Moses and the Prophets, Christian faith covers both sides of life, offering its members citizenship in God’s kingdom but also personal status as royalty in that kingdom. This new teaching, according to Jesus and his followers, is as old as the timeless plan of God, a plan of salvation that goes back to the very beginning of creation. J.

Like newborn infants

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a novel by Victor Hugo, tells the story of a baby who was left on the steps of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris the Second Sunday of Easter. The baby was found and adopted by a priest, who gave the baby a name derived from the Latin name for that day. The story of Quasimodo is not much of an Easter story. It has more sorrow than joy, more tragedy than triumph. Yet its origins link the novel to the life of the Church, and as such the story can be used to illustrate and celebrate the Christian season of Easter.

But a few things must be explained. When I was a boy and heard that the story of “the Hunchback of Notre Dame” would be shown on television, I assumed that the movie would be about football. I knew that Notre Dame had a football team (confusing the university in Indiana, USA, with the cathedral in Paris, France). I guessed that hunchback was a football position, something like quarterback and halfback and fullback. I did not expect priests and gypsies to be part of the story. But I saw the movie; I have read the book several times since then. Quasimodo and Esmeralda are as meaningful to me as the three musketeers or Christine Daae. Classic French literature is a joy, even if its sentences and paragraphs require more effort to consume than our post-Hemingway American novels and stories.

Other people might question what is meant by “the Second Sunday of Easter.” The traditional Christian calendar assigns more than a day to Easter—the Easter season is a week of weeks, forty-nine days, ending on the fiftieth day which is the festival of Pentecost, celebrating the work of the Holy Spirit. During those seven weeks, especially on the seven Sundays, the resurrection continues to be celebrated—not with colored eggs and candy, but with Bible readings and hymns and sermons and prayers that remember the resurrection of Jesus Christ and apply his victory to our lives today.

Like all the Sundays and holidays on the Christian calendar, the Sundays of Easter each have a special “praise song” called an Introit. The words of the Introit are taken from the Bible, mostly from the book of Psalms, although other verses of praise are also used. The Introit for the Second Sunday of Easter begins with a quote from I Peter 2:2-3: “Like new-born infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” The Latin words for “like new-born infants” are “Quasi Modo Geniti”—hence the name given to the baby hunchback, Quasimodo.

The Quasimodo theme, though, is not about human deformities or about dancing gypsies. Quasi Modo Geniti speaks of new life—the new life Christians receive through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his work, Christians are born again. Our old sinful selves are killed and buried with Christ; our new selves are raised with Christ and live with Christ forever. In his letter to the Romans, chapter six, the apostle Paul links this death and burial and resurrection to Baptism. Therefore, traditional Christians claim to be “born again,” not because of any prayer they prayed or invitation they gave to Jesus, but because of his death and burial and resurrection, because of baptism, and because of the ongoing work of God the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Because God is outside of time and unlimited by time, his people can be new every day. Every day we can be born again; every day we can be “like new-born infants.” Every song of praise is a new song sung to the Lord, even if we sang it before, even if Christians have been singing it for centuries. The commandment to love one another is a new commandment every day. Christ spoke it as a new commandment the night he was betrayed, but it had already been spoken in the past by Moses and the prophets. It is new because Christians are new—new-born infants, born every day through the resurrection of Christ and through his forgiveness, his restoration, and his transforming power.

Two years ago, the cathedral of Notre Dame was damaged by fire. Today it is being rebuilt. That holy place, dedicated to God, is both old and new, transformed even as each Christian is transformed through the work of Jesus. The fire of God’s judgment is quenched by the water of his Sacrament, washing away our sins and adopting us into God’s family. Jesus endured that fire for us on the cross. Jesus provided us with victory. Jesus makes us new every day—born again by his grace as children of the heavenly Father and heirs of the kingdom of heaven. We have tasted that the Lord is good. We rejoice in his goodness forever. J.

Easter hymn

Christ is arisen

From the grave’s dark prison.

So let our song exulting rise:

Christ with comfort lights our eyes. Alleluia!

All our hopes were ended

Had Jesus not ascended

From the grave triumphantly

Our never-ending life to be. Alleluia!

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

So let our song exulting rise:

Christ, our comfort, fills the skies. Alleluia!

Traditional German Easter hymn, ca. 1100.

A Good Friday hymn

O sacred Head, now wounded, With grief and shame weighed down,

Now scornfully surrounded With thorns, Thine only crown.

O sacred Head, what glory, What bliss ‘til now was thine!

Yet, though despised and gory, I joy to call Thee mine.

Men mock and taunt and jeer Thee, Thou noble countenance,

Though mighty worlds shall fear Thee And flee before Thy glance.

How art Thou pale with anguish, With sore abuse and scorn!

How dost Thy visage languish That once was bright as morn!

Now from Thy cheeks has vanished Their color, once so fair;

From Thy red lips is banished The splendor that was there.

Grim death, with cruel rigor, Hath robbed Thee of Thy life;

Thus Thou hast lost Thy vigor, They strength, in this sad strife.

My burden in Thy Passion, Lord, Thou hast borne for me,

For it was my transgression Which brought this woe on Thee.

I cast me down before Thee; Wrath were my rightful lot.

Have mercy, I implore Thee; Redeemer, spurn me not!

My Shepherd, now receive me; My Guardian, own me Thine.

Great blessings Thou didst give me, O Source of gifts divine.

Thy lips have often fed me With words of truth and love;

Thy Spirit oft hath led me To heavenly joys above.

Here I will stand beside Thee, From Thee I will not part;

O Savior, do not chide me! When breaks Thy loving heart,

When soul and body languish In death’s cold, cruel grasp,

Then, in Thy deepest anguish, Thee in mine arms I’ll clasp.

The joy can ne’er be spoken, Above all joys beside,

When in Thy body broken I thus with safety hide.

O Lord of Life, desiring Thy glory now to see,

Beside Thy cross expiring, I’d breathe my soul to Thee.

What language shall I borrow To thank Thee, dearest Friend,

For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?

Oh, make me Thine forever! And should I fainting be,

Lord, let me never, never, Outlive my love for Thee.

My Savior, be Thou near me When death is at my door;

Then let Thy presence cheer me, Forsake me nevermore!

When soul and body languish, Oh, leave me not alone,

But take away mine anguish By virtue of Thine own!

Be Thou my Consolation, My Shield, when I must die;

Remind me of Thy Passion When my last hour draws nigh.

Mine eyes shall then behold Thee, Upon Thy cross shall dwell,

My heart by faith enfold Thee. Who dieth thus dies well.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)

A Palm Sunday hymn

Ride on, ride on in majesty!

Hark! All the tribes Hosanna cry,

O Savior meek, pursue Thy road,

With palms and scattered garments strowed.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!

In lowly pomp ride on to die.

O Christ, Thy triumphs now begin

O’er captive death and conquered sin.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!

The angel armies of the sky

Look down with sad and wond’ring eyes

To see th’approaching sacrifice.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!

The last and fiercest strife is nigh.

The Father on His sapphire throne

Awaits His own anointed Son.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!

In lowly pomp, ride on to die.

Bow Thy meek head to mortal pain,

Then take, O God, Thy pow’r and reign.

Henry H. Milman (1791-1868)

Christ’s new covenant

(a sermon on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Mark 10:35-45)

              We take it for granted, and generally we don’t even think about it. When we do stop and think about it, the topic confuses us. Sometimes it seems to rush by quickly; other times it seems to drag. Physicists like Isaac Newton assumed that it is the same for everyone everywhere, but Albert Einstein insisted that it is relative. Many modern philosophers say that it doesn’t really exist, that it is only there when we notice it.

              This strange quality is called time. We measure time with years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. Without time, nothing could move and nothing could change. Nothing would be new or old if time did not exist. Time has a direction: we move from past to present and from present to future. Because of time, we have worries; and because of time, we have hope. Our lives are shaped by time. Yet the more we think about time, the less we understand it.

              God created time. He made the universe and all that exists in it “in the beginning.” God established time by making evening and morning, the first day. Our relationship to the sun creates days and years; our relationship to the moon creates months. Weeks are special; God created weeks by making the world in six days and resting on the seventh day, giving the people created in his image a day of rest every seventh day. God’s commandments of sabbath rest extended to sets of seven years, in which farmland got to rest every seventh year. God also created the Jubilee Year after every seven sets of years. On the Jubilee Year, debts were canceled, slaves were set free, and land was returned to the families who had received that land from God.

              God created time. We live in time. Our relationship with God works in time. When God speaks to us, he mentions time. Yet time does not limit God. He exists in time, but he also exists beyond time. To God, it is always “today.” God is eternal and unchanging. He sees all time at a glance. To God, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. “Old” and “new” do not have meaning to God as they have meaning to us. Therefore, when God speaks to us, he uses our sense of “old” and “new.” Yet to God, everything is new and nothing is old. What seems old to us might be very recent for God, and what seems new to us might be old news for God.

              The prophet Jeremiah lived centuries after the time of Moses. When God called Moses, he had Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt on their way to the Promised Land. On the way, Moses and the Israelites stopped at Mount Sinai, and God made a covenant with his people. He said, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” God spoke about the behavior of his people under that covenant. They would have no other gods. They would respect God’s name, God’s time, and the human authorities that represent God’s authority. They would love their neighbors and respect their lives, their marriages, their property and their reputations. They would be content with what God provided them; they would not covet the things God provided to their neighbors.

              Under the terms of this old covenant, God would bless his people when they obeyed him, and God would punish his people when they disobeyed him. While his people obeyed, God would provide favorable weather, fertile fields, abundance of crops, and security from their enemies. But if they broke the covenant, God would withhold the rain and would let the crops fail. He would allow enemies to invade and to harm his people. If they obeyed the old covenant, they could stay on the land God had given to them; but if they broke that covenant, God would take them away from the land and would force them to live among their enemies, even though their enemies were also God’s enemies.

              When Jeremiah came, the Israelites had been breaking the old covenant for generations. They had worshiped false gods, the gods of the Canaanites and other neighboring nations. They had taken advantage of one another, forcing their neighbors into poverty for their own wealth and comfort. They had broken the sabbath commandments about rest and freedom and restoration. Under the terms of the old covenant, God had no reason to provide for them or protect them. Jeremiah, like the prophets before him, warned that consequences were coming because of the broken old covenant. Enemies would destroy the nation Israel, killing many of its citizens and carrying others away from the land. God had no obligation to prevent these bad things from happening, because his people had already broken the covenant God made with them. The Assyrians and Babylonians were tools in the hands of God, instruments used to accomplish his plan according to the terms of the covenant he had spoken to his people at Mount Sinai.

              Terms of the old covenant seem natural to us. Some people call it karma. We expect good things to happen when we do good things; we expect bad things to happen when we do bad things. If we obey the commands of God, we expect God to reward us. If we break his commandments, we expect God to punish us. We all know how the old covenant works: what comes around goes around. You harvest whatever you plant. In the end, we all get what we deserve. Therefore, if something good happens to you, sometime in the past you must have done something good. If something bad happens to you, the first question you ask is, “What did I do to deserve this?”

              Jeremiah spent much of his career warning God’s people of the consequences of breaking God’s covenant. But Jeremiah, like the other prophets, knew that God has an old covenant and a new covenant. Under the old covenant we get what we deserve. Under the new covenant, God forgives our sins and blesses us. The new covenant is based on God’s grace, not on our obedience. Under the new covenant, God rescues us from our sins. He rescues us from what we deserve. He rescues us from the power of evil, because God forgives our iniquity and remembers our sin no more.

              The new covenant is not fair. The new covenant involves an exchange. In that exchange, the Son of God becomes one of us and lives among us. He obeys the commandments and earns God’s blessings. He deserves nothing but good. But, in the new covenant, the Son of God takes the burden of sins and iniquity, and he pays the price in full. The guilt of the world’s sins falls upon him, and he consumes the punishment that sinners deserve. In return, when God has forgiven iniquity and forgotten sin, he is able to bless those who broke the old covenant. God is able to claim us as his people and to give us the good things that Jesus deserves. He is our God and we are his people, just as he said in the old covenant. But the sins of our past have not destroyed that relationship. He remains our God and we remain his people, because through the cross of Christ God has forgiven our iniquity. He remembers our sin no more.

              The old covenant is fair. It makes sense. The new covenant is unfair. It transcends our understanding. In a perfectly fair world, the new covenant would not be allowed. Jesus could not suffer, because he never did anything wrong. Each of us would get what we deserve. Because we have all sinned—we all have broken the commands of God—we all have fallen short of his plan for our lives—he would no longer be our God, and we would no longer be his people.

              But God is not fair according to the terms of the old covenant. He replaces it with a new covenant that is unfair. He allows good people to suffer so he can suffer on the cross to pay for our sins. He allows sinful people to receive good things so he can give us good things we do not deserve. He is unfair for our benefit, breaking the terms of the old covenant and replacing it with a new covenant that allows him to remain our God and allows us to remain his people.

              In our travel through time, we encounter the old covenant first and then the new covenant comes later. Sinai happens first in history, and then comes Calvary. We are born knowing the justice of getting what we deserve, good in return for good and bad in return for bad. We then are told about the new covenant, an agreement when God reverses everything we took for granted. He absorbs our guilt upon the cross, paying our debt, reducing his wrath to zero; and he forgets our sins, gives us good things we do not deserve, and changes us to be his people. As a result, we also forgive those who sin against us. We also give good things to our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We also are unfair, showing love and mercy to our neighbors and loving them, even and especially when they do not deserve our love.

              For us, grace and mercy are a new covenant. For that reason, God speaks of an old covenant at Sinai and a new covenant at Calvary. But to God, nothing is old and nothing is new. In fact, the new covenant is (in a sense) older than the old covenant, because the new covenant is truer to the nature of God. God responds to sin with punishment; he reacts to evil by judging and condemning evil. At the core of his nature, though, God is love. He wants to give good things even to those who do not deserve good things. He wants to rescue victims of sin and evil. He wants the world to be good, and therefore he restores what is good, fixes what is broken, and reshapes us into the image of Christ after we first sinned and lost the image of God. He is our God, and we are his people, because that is what God desires. Forgiveness is more natural to God than judgment. He sees our sins for a while, but the blood of Christ erases our sins. Every day, in the sight of God, we are new people—cleansed, restored, and spotless in the eyes of God. Every song of praise we sing is a new song to God, and every time he tells us to love each other is a new commandment, because we never stop being new in the new covenant God has established with us through the cross of his Son.

              The old covenant comes in the course of time. The new covenant stands outside of time. Before God began to create, before he said, “Let there be light,” he had already planned our salvation. He knew that we would sin. He knew that his covenant based on our obedience would be broken. He knew the price he would pay to rescue us from the punishment we deserve. But God had already chosen his new covenant. That new (and timeless) covenant rests in the eternal and unchanging love of God, love by which God chooses to become a victim of evil on the cross to rescue us victims of evil and give us a share in his victory over evil and sin and death.

              We live under the terms of the new covenant. The old covenant no longer threatens us with punishment for our sins. But sometimes we forget where we live. We still want the benefits of the old covenant, so long as its judgment applies to others and not to ourselves. James and John, the disciples of Jesus, were thinking of the old covenant when they asked a special favor of Jesus. They wanted to be at his right hand and at his left when he claimed his glory. They were thinking in Old Testament terms of the kingdom, the power, and the glory when they made this request. They were not considering the unfair new covenant that Jesus had come to fulfill. Jesus denied them a place at his right and at his left when he claimed his kingdom and came into his glory. Those places belong to others—not to Moses and Elijah, not to Simon Peter, not to Martin Luther or any other great Christian heroes. Jesus claimed his kingdom and accomplished his glory on a cross. At his right and his left were two thieves, being punished for their crimes under the old covenant. Because Jesus was establishing his new covenant, when one of those thieves confessed his faith, he was promised a place with Jesus in Paradise. James and John and the rest of us are also promised a place in Paradise, not under the old covenant where people get what they deserve, but under the new covenant where, by grace through faith, we are forgiven of our sins and claimed as the people of God.

              Speaking of both covenants, Jesus speaks of a baptism and of a cup. Baptism washes and purifies. Jesus endured the cross as a baptism of fire, a baptism of his Father’s wrath, so we could be spared that wrath and our sins could be forgotten. The cup of God’s wrath is filled with our guilt and our sins. This cup contains a poison that kills, for the wages of sin is death. But Jesus drinks the poison in that cup. He consumes the wrath of his Father so he can adopt us into his family, making each of us a child of God.

              Jesus has another baptism, one of water rather than fire. Having endured the fire for us, Jesus washes us with water in Holy Baptism. As the new covenant is stronger than the old covenant, so the water of Holy Baptism extinguishes the fire of judgment and gives us eternal life in God’s kingdom.

              Jesus has another cup, the cup of salvation, the cup of the New Testament. At his Table, Jesus trades cup with us. He takes our cup, the cup of wrath, the poisoned cup, and he drinks from it until it is empty. Jesus did not want to drink from that cup. In Gethsemane, he prayed that the cup of his Father’s wrath would be taken from him. But he accepted the will of his Father and drank from that cup. Now, in exchange, Jesus gives us his cup. “This is the cup of the New Testament,” he says, “given for the forgiveness of your sins.” His blood removes our sins, because he shed that blood to take away our sins. They are forgiven and forgotten by God because of the work of Christ on the cross. As often as we drink from his cup of salvation, we proclaim the death of Christ until he comes. We proclaim the death that conquered death, the death that was followed by resurrection so we could rise to eternal life according to the terms of God’s new covenant.

              Jesus did not come to claim what belonged to him under the old covenant. The Son of Man did not come to be served. He came to serve and to give his life as a Ransom. Because he is a Ransom, our debt is paid. Our sins are forgiven and forgotten. The God who made all things—who created time itself—has chosen to be our God. He has chosen us to be his people. We are new every day because of the new covenant, the covenant fulfilled by Jesus through his sacrifice on the cross. To our Savior Jesus Christ be glory and honor and praise, now and forever.                 Amen.