As our sermon series exploring Christian beginnings continues, we find ourselves this morning reflecting on how the faith of Jesus, a Galilean charismatic prophet and sage, became the faith not only of other Israelites, but also of members of many other nationalities and ethnicities.
And perhaps the place to start is with the oft-overlooked recognition that from the outset the message of Jesus was considered to be good news. The Greek word euaggelion and its cognates, usually translated as ‘good news’ or ‘gospel,’ is not only found in the Hebrew Scriptures, notably in Isaiah …
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (LXX Isaiah 52.7; also 40.9; 60.6; 61.1)
… but is also used in many secular contexts, for example to announce a victory in battle or the birth of a child or a political success.
And the dynamics of good news, in whatever shape or form it comes, tend to be both ecstatic and contagious. Quite simply, it’s very difficult to keep good news to yourself – you need to share it; in truth, there is something about good news that almost compels its propagation as any parent of a newly born baby would tell you. And as the good news is shared so its capacity for engendering joy is communicated also. After all, rarely does news of a new birth engender indifference or hostility.
From the outset, Jesus preached that his way of faith and kingdom vision were good news. And at least some of those whom he encountered must have thought so as well, otherwise the Jesus phenomenon would have been short lived and swiftly dissipated. The fact that this didn’t happen underlines the intrinsically compelling and joy-giving quality of who Jesus was, what he was about and how he enabled others to be.
Let’s not forget, there are really only three means of transmission of almost everything: imposition, infection, appropriation. Something is forced upon us against our will or we catch it inadvertently or we choose to embrace it. From what we can gather, in the early centuries, the good news of Jesus spread largely through appropriation as a broad spectrum of humanity found themselves drawn to the impact of Jesus upon the lives of those who embraced his faith and followed in his way.
According to Acts, and here the New Testament authors speak with one voice, Jesus is good news and good news is for sharing. I wonder if we really believe that? Now I appreciate this is a sensitive area for many of us and, of course, we don’t want to be coercive, manipulative or do anything that would have the effect of transforming good news into bad news; but, equally, do we not wish to invite others to discover what we’re in the process of discovering?
After all, and without wishing to trivialise what’s at stake here, if we read a profound book or watch an entertaining film or visit a beautiful place or enjoy a new recipe wouldn’t we wish to pass on the good news so that others had an opportunity to share in our joy? They may ignore our recommendations; they may even act on them and be disappointed, but at least they would have an opportunity to decide for themselves.
I do sometimes wonder whether we have allowed our liberal proclivities to breed within us a well-meaning reticence which in seeking to preserve each person’s freedom to choose their own path actually, in reducing their awareness of the options, has the opposite effect.
But what would we say about the good news of Jesus? Well I suppose the first thing to ask ourselves is whether we have found Jesus to be good news. And again this can be hugely problematic for some of us who are more comfortable ranting on about what we no longer believe in Christianity – miracles, virgin birth, bodily resurrection and so forth – than celebrating what we continue to value and appreciate.
Now, if someone recommended you to try out a restaurant where the cooking was indifferent, the staff discourteous, the service slow, the surroundings dismal and the clientele fractious you would be unlikely to make a bee line for it. Equally, unless people see in us something life-enriching and unless we can give a compelling account for it, liberal Christianity will soon become extinct and, in my view, rightly so because we don’t deserve to be taken seriously unless we’ve discovered something that is genuinely good news.
And here Luke’s portrayal of Christian beginnings is insightful. A little earlier we heard two accounts from Acts of people coming to faith in Jesus – firstly, Israelites in Jerusalem responding to the happenings of Pentecost and Peter’s apologia for them; and then Lydia, a wealthy clothing merchant from Thyatira in Asia, who was sympathetic to the Hebrew religion and is drawn to Christ through the preaching of Paul.
Both cases include a rationale giving significance to Jesus in terms that were readily intelligible to and persuasive for the recipients. And in my sermon two weeks’ ago, we looked at this approach and its contemporary implications in some detail. This morning I would like us briefly to focus on another common denominator to people coming to faith in Jesus, namely baptism. Then, as today, baptism was a rite of initiation and incorporation.
In the first century, from what we can gather, baptism was by full immersion and more often than not administered to adults. It must have been a hugely impressive ritual, resonant not only of the birthing process through which we emerge into life from the waters of our mothers’ womb, but also, within Israelite tradition, of that archetypal act of deliverance whereby Moses led the Hebrew people through the Red Sea from slavery and oppression into freedom and covenant with Yahweh.
Baptism was also part of the rite of initiation by which a Gentile such as Lydia would have become a proselyte, a member of the Israelite religion. In all probability, baptism rituals were also practised in some of the ancient mystery cults such as Isis, Mithras or Osiris. And, of course, baptism characterized John’s renewal movement through which fellow-Israelites re-engaged with the heart of their faith.
In practising baptism, then, the early followers of Jesus were not inventing a new ritual, but adopting an existing one and with that embracing its currency as a rite of passage – of initiation and transition, marking a new beginning. And this is significant for all sorts of reasons, not least because there is little evidence that Jesus baptized. But more so, because baptism implies community, suggesting that from the very beginning the Jesus movement was about belonging as much as, if not more than, about believing.
And it was within the context of belonging to a community that gathered in Jesus’ name, was shaped by his teaching and pattern of life, and continued his mission and ministry, that members found their lives re-framed within a different narrative, re-ordered around different values and re-oriented towards different goals.
Quite simply, baptism bestowed a new identity and one that recipients (remember you cannot baptise yourself!) were then invited to inhabit in the company of others and for the furtherance of God’s kingdom. It implied a life-long process and, judging from other parts of Acts (8.4-25, 19.1-41), it took some followers of the Way a long time to let go of incompatible outlooks and practices in order to become more faithful followers of Christ.
By way of an analogy, think of the process of assimilation by which a new resident from a foreign country settles in and commences the long process of learning the language and building relationships whilst gradually inhabiting the climate and culture with growing confidence. However appealing that country may have appeared from the outset, it still requires a considerable investment of time and energy before it begins to feel like home.
And so it must have been for new members of the Jesus’ communities as they grew into a new identify and embraced a new way of life. Interestingly, amongst the earliest designations for the Jesus movement is hê hodos – the Way (Acts 9.2 et al). As Jesus called his first disciples to follow him, so the movement he initiated conceived its vocation as a journey in the company of Christ and those attracted to him through his impact upon the lives of existing sojourners.
What can we learn from all this for helping others come to faith in our time? Perhaps, it challenges us to rethink the role of baptism, although adult baptism is now practised in the Anglican communion and we have baptized adults in this church during my time here.
But it also underlines the importance of community and with that the recognition that coming to faith is not so much about learning to believe the right sort of things about God, Jesus and so forth (although what we believe matters, but beliefs that genuinely shape our lives will be apparent from our attitudes and conduct); rather it is a gradual awakening to a different experience of being human.
One that is discovered in communities that draw inspiration from Jesus and are guided by his wisdom. Communities that seek to practice his way of unconditional love and ethical grace; that strive not only to welcome and appreciate all-comers, but also to recognise Christ in all and sundry, serving him through serving them. Counter-cultural, sometimes subversive, communities that bear witness to a different set of priorities and values. Prophetic communities that attempt not only to challenge injustice and the misuse of power, but also to model more just and equitable economies.
Surely, such a community sounds appealing, even compelling; but are we really doing any more than playing at it – playing at being faithful followers of Christ in the company of similarly minded (and, possibly, deluded) participants? The honest answer is probably not, but there again I’m reminded of how Donald Winnicott, the acclaimed psychoanalyst, understood play to be about creating a transitional sphere in which children develop their confidence and skills to inhabit the world beyond their imaginations. If that’s what Christian communities are about, acquiring the confidence and skills to live out Christ’s risen life in the world beyond these (church) walls, then let us play on and invite others to join us and do likewise!