Saturday, 2 November 2013

Transformation by separation

Christian inscriptions from underground Rome

Reading recently about early Christianity and the development of the Jesus' movement into what we now know as Christianity I was provoked and challenged by the devotion of the early Christians. They were faithful to Jesus to the point of not only being misunderstood and slandered but also rejected and executed.

The early Christians, it seems, understood in a way we don't that they were a holy people a 'called out' people. A people, as 1 Peter 2 puts it, 'for the Lord's own possession'. It was clear to all in the church that their primary calling was to Christ and if that meant isolation from the culture, so be it. Devotion to their Lord against all the odds (and against all the laws) was what they were called to and as a result a chasm opened up between Christians and the populous. They met in secret, worshipped an invisible god (hence were hated as 'atheists'), held 'love feasts' attended by their brothers and sisters (some of whom were also husband & wife) and they ate the body and drank the blood of their founder (in the communion meal). They abstained from popular sport, refused to attend the games, wouldn't sacrifice to the emperor and they avoided national festivals/celebrations that involved worship/sacrifice to pagan gods. For a society saturated in gods the apparent 'aloof-ness' and distinction of the Christian god (a weak carpenter's son who was executed as a criminal) made no sense to almost everyone.
Arrogant Christians? More like divergent rebels threatening to upset the peace.

In the centuries after Jesus' resurrection Christians experienced persecution at the hands of the state and their fellow countryman. The stories from 64AD of Nero's persecution of Christians are infamous; Christians thrown to lions, burnt as torches to light up the streets and stitched into the skins of dead animals before being thrown to a pack of dogs. One writer from the time revealed the attitude toward Christians when he wrote: 'if the Tiber floods the city or if the Nile refuses to rise, or if the sky withholds its rain, if there is an earthquake, a famine, a pestilence, at once the cry is raised: 'Christians to the lions.''

Christians after the pattern of the apostle Paul set about 'infiltrating' culture with the gospel. They didn't want to live separated from society. They sought to engage the culture and inform people that despite appearances and propaganda Caesar wasn't in fact 'Lord' - Jesus was. In pluralist pagan Roman society submitting to Christ as Lord rather than Caesar, or worshipping Christ as God rather than Aesculapius or Artemis meant that you had to look and live very differently. Christians refused to offer even a pinch of incense once a year to the emperor and they suffered the reproach of all peoples for it.

They were faithful to Christ as God above all gods and Lord above all Lords. Out of commitment to Jesus as Lord they worked differently, married differently, behaved as singles differently, raised children differently. They employed differently, used their money differently, cared for others differently and they approached death differently. They embraced chastity or fidelity as the only options in sexuality in a day that was even more promiscuous than ours and they spoke out against the killing of babies at a time when it was even more socially acceptable than it is in ours. They refused to celebrate pagan festivals even if all the supermarkets were selling their goods but in so doing they peppered the world of the common people with a living example of what devotion to Christ looked like.

By and large, in an age where very few people had free access to education and the chance to exert influence this was the lot of the average Christian. It was a life of faithfulness to Christ in the face of hostility from the world around them. It was a life of influencing society at the 'grass roots' level and since society couldn't stop them or mould them into its image, over time the separation of the Christians had a transforming effect on the world of its day.

There were Christians who had the opportunity for influence in the upper echelons of society but they were the exceptions. Men like Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Rome, Igantius of Antioch and Origen of Alexandria petitioned emperors, argued the Christian case and defined orthodox truth. They gained a foothold on the intellectual life of the society that paved the way for change at an empire-wide level, but they were the exceptions.

I'm provoked by the example of the early Christians. As a believer I feel the temptation to try at all costs to make Christianity palatable and understood and reasonable to the world around me. I believe that trusting Jesus with every area of my life from my sex life to my financial dealings to my parenting and work ethic makes the most sense of all the facts. It is reasonable and wonderful to follow Jesus but if I'm not careful I can over emphasise the 'reasonableness' of Christian ethics, to the point that Jesus' distinctiveness and 'apart-ness' can be missed or forgotten all together. I want people to know that I'm not an unthinking superstitious 'religious person' and I want people to know as well that I'm not a pre-judging, narrow minded fundamentalist. These aren't misguided aims given the current state of things and popular attitudes to Christian faith but... I want people to know and to see that I am sold out to Christ above everything else. He comes first, his way comes first. You see, at times my heart aches with a painful longing and excitement to know him more and I want to celebrate and embrace the distinctiveness of the Christian call. I want to do it in a way that makes it clear I'm not called to 'better' living or even 'higher' living as though Christian virtue and morality was a superior way of life. I don't pursue Jesus' way in my life out of some moralistic 'my way is better than your way'. I want to embrace the radical call to separation because Jesus is alive and deserves my highest devotion, because he's won my heart, because I've become his student.

Christians - let's look like followers of Christ. Often we look and taste like everyone else (although if we're honest a little less balanced and considerate of others than our non-Christian counterparts). Does Christ command our highest devotion? Are we willing to trust him and go his way even when it stands in direct contrast to the beliefs and practises of our society? Will we uphold a biblical view of marriage, of sex, of the unborn? Will we pursue Jesus' attitude toward our finances and our desire for justice and retaliation? Will we embrace integrity and love and willingly subject ourselves to every human institution? In short, if we were to go on trial in a court of law for being a Christian, could they find enough evidence to convict us?

Let's learn from the faithfulness to Christ of our forefathers/brothers/sisters. Let's learn from them and emulate them in our day. Jesus not the media/politicians/supermarkets gets to set our priorities.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Brilliant Jez-thank you for a great challenge and reminder of living for Jesus... Ruth x