Jesus, Christianity, and a ministry that backfired

It only takes a small group of passionate people to change the world, indeed, its the only thing that ever has.
Margaret Mead
Some might say, it only takes one passionate person to change the world - and that's not necessarily the leader. Derek Sivers gives a short talk over at TED in which he presents the idea that it is really the first follower that can accelerate something into being a movement.

There was no man that died and rose again. It was the concept of "the Christ" that was resurrected. Messianic hope had all but died off. In what we now call the first century - really, some 500 years after Israel's release from captivity to Babylon - the Messianic hope was revitalized. What started as small pockets of men and women who still clung on to a Messianic hope began to grow into something more. Rumours began to spread that there was a man who had stood out as being somewhat different - perhaps this man was the expected Messiah. Where there are groups of people gathered there will soon be one rising to the surface to take the lead and stir up the others. There needs to be some order to these ramshackle meetings taking place. The only model they have is what went before. It took less than thirty years to be a full blown religion. Seventy, and it was a religious hierarchy with an active clergy, along with a clergy/laity divide.

Who can we look to as the catalyst for such a resurgence?

  • Peter is often cited as the first follower. He had heard Jesus speak, and been directly affected by his words. Peter was a man plagued with self-doubt. The gospel accounts have him constantly stumbling, and making errors of judgment, and always being picked up by Jesus. Peter wanted to stay with this wonderful man. In the end the gospel accounts have him denying he even knew his so-called friend. Whatever grievous event took place, no doubt his guilt went some way to sparking the idea that this man he had been besotted with could be the promised Messiah.
  • Stephen - the first recorded incident of someone willing to die for the cause. In his brief summary of Israel's history, found in Acts chapter 7, he is really promoting the idea of "the Christ". In his dying moments, Luke even has Stephen using the same words Jesus used when he was dying: "Into your hands I commend my spirit...Do not hold this sin against them." He is being a Christ-like figure all on his own.
  • Paul - Again, we cannot discount this man's state of mind. He had witnessed the brutal stoning of an innocent man. What could he do to scrub the blood of this man from off his hands? He convinced himself he was appointed an apostle to the nations. He was the first to start writing about the Messiah. People had to be persuaded. He had to prove logically that "the Christ" was a going concern. How could he go about doing this? Acts chapter 9 says that he "confounded" them with scripture. He baffled the Jews. He began to use scriptural references to suggest that a modern day figure was somehow fulfilling an ancient role. He appealed to people of the nations effectively by saying, "This religion that you were once not allowed to be part of is throwing its doors open to you - but don't worry, you don't have to perform any of the ancient rituals." Paul outlines this in Ephesians 2:12, 13. To "the Gentiles" he writes:
    Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.
    Most troubling of all, Paul introduced the suggestion of the ransom sacrifice - that Jesus had died on behalf of mankind for the forgiveness of sins. Paul drew people in because they were weighed down with troubles and grief. It was ingenious. He couldn't have two thousand years of Israelite history go to waste. Paul's Christianity was "Judaism for the nations".
Christianity's leader is "the Christ". Something happened in the first century which caused the Messianic branch of Judaism to gain the ascendancy. Sometimes it just takes the right mix of distress and oppression to serve as a catalyst to spark into life a slumbering hope. Godless Roman armies occupying the promised land, and a harsh religious system determined not to recognise the plight of everyday man. The Messiah was dead, and then he was alive. Whatever it was that happened, it wasn't anything to do with Jesus.

There was a man - for convenience let's call him Jesus, because, after all, "Jesus" only means "Jehovah is our salvation," so that was likely a name given some decades later. The gospel accounts have Jesus calling his first followers from the banks of the Sea of Galilee, but it is of interest that Luke tells of Jesus going to Peter's home before he sees them with their boats. It could be that Peter and his family is an entry point. Jesus is known by these folk. It could be that he was related in some way to James and John. Jesus is profoundly different. He is quietly charismatic, with a noticeably skewed world-view. He does not ascribe to any of the religious extremes. He thinks for himself. Several times throughout the gospels he can be heard dismissing the houses of worship as unnecessary. His outburst at the temple in Jerusalem could well have been a demonstration against the pathetic condition of man's spirituality. Jesus wanted to bring an end to an oppressive religious system that had developed in Israel. He wanted it to change from within, to see their treasured relationship with God, but they weren't having any of it. That was the legacy he was hoping to leave them as he saw the inevitable unfolding before him. Those he left behind might have started off with good intentions, but it got lost along the way, until eventually it became one means of justification replacing another.

Jesus grasped something radical. God was not something outside to be worshiped and obeyed with laws. He was inside, in the heart, in the centre, buried beneath a mountain of confusion. He had been obscured by community - religious devotion passed for years from parent to child at its very base level. Each man individually had been pushed apart from God from infancy onward. It is up to each of us to find our way back to be whole again. Jesus believed that "your sins are forgiven". God knows us so well that every hair of your head is numbered. Because he knows, he understands, and with understanding comes forgiveness. Jesus did not subscribe to the belief that forgiveness was earned through the offering of sacrifices and obedience to the Law. He tells this wonderful story of the prodigal son as a parable of man's separation from God and of his desperate need to reunite with him. This was all a process Jesus himself had been through, until eventually he could declare, "I and the Father are one."

The psychology of this was awesome. We have to find God within. We are apart from him, on the run, and we need to reconnect. This was not some philosophical curio. It was not some scientific theory suited to being batted about the halls of schools and universities. It was not the sole property of intellectuals, or Greek philosophers and their disciples. This was life - reality, and the man on the street needed to hear about it.

Jesus went out and tried telling people. Imagine him explaining it to people, trying to help them understand. He used whatever he could: Seed-sowing for farmers - they would grasp the concept of a field of wheat inter-sown with weeds - a metaphor of the way daily struggles and grievances mean that the inauthentic (read "sinful") personality is sown alongside the potential for good, eventually crowding out and obscuring the real you; fishermen would appreciate the dragnet, and the separating of fish. Within us there is the good stuff, and there is the vile - we need to root out the one and harvest the other.

This was crazy talk to some, unpalatable to others, downright terrifying to a few, and still others it infuriated.

Honest words that this extraordinary man had used were twisted into something unrecognisable - or sculpted into something that fitted the mold of the Messiah-figure that Israel had been waiting for. He tried to focus on the Father, they kept the spotlight on him. He tried to show them that their sins were already forgiven, they made him the source of that salvation. This was not the way he had anticipated it going. A handful of men had the potential for grasping the enormity of what he was saying, the truth he had unearthed, and the dynamic effect it could have on people's lives. But after he disappeared it just became all about his disappearance. In fact, the man himself is forgotten. Even his message is forgotten. It gets over-shadowed by Messianic fervour because..."it only takes a small group of passionate people..."

There is an experience recorded in the gospels which serves as an excellent illustration for the way Jesus' ministry backfired. It can be found at Mark 5:1-20, and Luke 8:26-39. Jesus visits a region called the Gerasenes, part of the Decapolis - ten cities occupied by the Roman armies. There he encounters the town madman. Many towns today have such a character. The unapproachable, somewhat scary individual. He can be observed falling down drunk in the street, or sleeping on a bench in the town square. Occasionally he will be ranting, talking to himself on a street corner, or yelling at passers-by. When the police try to intervene he displays unfeasible strength, and it takes several of them to drag him away. There was such a man in the country of the Gerasenes. He was the terror of the cemetery. Despite his fearsome nature, Jesus recognised that he was a tormented soul. He cried out. He sought solitude. He harmed himself.

Jesus "cured" him. Here, again, we have to appreciate the redacted veneer the gospels have put on the event. If such an experience ever did take place it is far more likely that Jesus spent some considerable time with this man. Fearlessly he approached this man, and showed him kindness. He might have talked about anything, and gained this rejected fellow's trust. Eventually, casually, he could get him to talk about himself, why he was hot with anger; why his countenance had fallen; why this self-hatred, this need to self-harm, to seek solitude? We have the presence of swine - perhaps reminding us of the story of the prodigal son. Jesus talks about the forgiveness of sins, and about how this man is worth not just more than two birds of very little value, but more even than this whole herd of swine. Jesus has an idea. Parents have used this idea with their children. When a child is having nightmares, and she is afraid to go to sleep because she doesn't want to have the same nightmare - something about a monster, the parent can get her to draw a picture of the monster, and then say, "Now, screw that monster up and throw him into the bin." Very often, when this happens, the child is able to sleep more soundly.

During one conversation, Jesus suggests, imagine all your woes, pain and suffering coming out of you and being transferred to the swine. Now imagine them leaping off a precipice - or perhaps they got really radical and literally chased a few of them off the precipice (a more likely reason for the locals to get annoyed) - taking all your woes with them - it wouldn't are worth more than many pigs. This man's woes will have been tied up with his past. Perhaps he was the rejected offspring of a tryst between a Roman centurion and a young Jewish girl - hence the reference to "Legion". The man needed to forgive himself, and let go of the terrible way he had been treated by those who were meant to be a haven of love and security.

Then we see taking place an example of what modern psychology would term "transference". The man wants to follow Jesus - but, Jesus breaks that bond. The man doesn't need him any more. He is able to strike out on his own. The parting is the clincher. Jesus says, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." But either the man does not do that, or he is not reported as doing that. No, "he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him." (italics mine) And therein lies the crux of the matter. The messenger is glorified, and not the message.

None of this had been the intention of the man named Jesus. He meant for people to sort out their own troubled condition, and learn to stand on their own two feet. He wanted men to go and tell others what it was like to be reconnected with God. He had accomplished this in the lives of a few even while he was still alive. He had no intention of starting some sort of movement. If anything, we should read into his determination to stop people from declaring his authority to be exactly that, denial that he was a Christ-figure. But, it was no good. As it says in Mark 7:36, "He charged them to tell no one; but the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it."