In April 30 Common Era (C.E.) or was it April 33 C.E. (the scholars are still arguing about this) a Palestinian peasant known as Jesus of Nazareth was crucified in Jerusalem by the Roman authorities. Some weeks later his followers who numbered about 120 women and men caused quite a stir in Jerusalem by claiming that this Jesus had been raised from the dead and that he was the Messiah promised by God. They said that they had experienced the spirit of Jesus the Christ and they called on anyone who would listen to follow their example and believe in this person Jesus.
Remarkably lots of people did listen because these first Christians had obviously had a life changing experience and what’s more they were a very attractive community. They genuinely cared for each other; they were egalitarian – anyone was welcome including women and slaves and the God they had encountered in Jesus was a lot more accessible than most of the other gods on offer.
Twenty years after the death of Jesus there were Christians in many parts of the Roman empire; we know this because an early Christian leader named Paul (although he used to be called Saul but that’s another story) wrote letters to some of the Christian communities in places like Rome and Corinth. These letters have been preserved in the Christian scriptures, commonly called the Bible. The Christian communities soon became known as churches.
For the first two hundred years of its existence Christianity was regarded by the Roman authorities as a bit suspect. On a few occasions some Roman Emperors actively persecuted Christians. The first to do this was Nero (of “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” fame). He found the Christians to be useful scapegoats and had some put to death in gruesome ways. Christians used the underground catacombs in Rome for worship during periods of persecution. At other times Christians met in people’s homes where they often shared meals together, prayed and read sacred texts and Christian writings. They also got involved in some social welfare such as feeding the poor and looking after their members who were in need.
Everything changed when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in about 312 C.E. Historians still argue whether he really got religion or just found it politically expedient but it certainly changed the situation for the Christians. They were now given official approval; lots more people joined and they could even build their own places for worship. ‘Church’ soon meant not just a gathering of Christians but a building as well. With state recognition also came money and power and in handling these some Christians lost the plot and forgot what their founder and leader, Jesus, had been on about.
So what was Jesus’ message and mission? Most of our knowledge about Jesus comes from the four Gospels that form the first part of what Christians call the “New Testament”. Jesus himself never wrote a book and never told his followers to write down what he said – for the first fifty years at least of the church’s history it relied on oral traditions passed down from his first disciples. It seems likely that the Gospels were originally intended as aids to memory as Christians shared with new believers the traditions concerning Jesus. Each of the Gospels has its own particular perspective and they don’t all agree on the details but together they give a compelling picture of the man, Jesus. For the three years of his public ministry Jesus went about preaching, teaching and healing the sick. He antagonised the religious authorities of his day by questioning their very literal interpretation of the law. He mixed with all kinds of people including the social outcasts like tax collectors and prostitutes. He was accused of always partying because he enjoyed eating and drinking with his friends and wasn’t upset when people from the street wandered in to join them.
The authorities, both religious and political, soon regarded him as a dangerous radical but he was a great hit with the ordinary people. He was also a pretty impressive debater and his opponents soon learned that he had a sharp mind and at times a sharp tongue. His teaching was mainly in parables – short pithy stories taken from real life situations but often with a very surprising ending. He called them parables of the Kingdom but it was clear that this was no ordinary Kingdom because he showed no interest in politics. His kingdom was a kingdom of the hearts and minds of men and women: they were his real interest.
One of Jesus’ best known stories was about a younger son who got sick and tired of being on the farm with his old Dad and his “goody two shoes” brother. Breaking all the conventions of his society, he told his father that he wanted to leave home and head for the big city but first he wanted his inheritance. What colossal cheek! But his old Dad went along with the plan and sent him off with the cash and a packed lunch. His big brother went ballistic. You can imagine what happened next. Younger son had a great time for a while with wine, women and song and was popular at the casino but in no time at all he’d blown most of the money and they cut up his Visa card. He was forced to take a job cleaning toilets at McDonalds and all he had to eat were the stale cheeseburgers.
One day as he was pouring Domestos down the loo, he had a sudden thought – back home the hired labourers get better pay and conditions, why don’t I go home? Then he thought, I couldn’t go back because I’ve been a jerk and my father will boot me out. He hesitated for days but then he took the risk and started the long journey back home.
Meanwhile the old Dad had been watching every day hoping his lost son would get some sense and come back. When he saw his son walking up the driveway he dropped the fencing wire and rushed across the paddock to meet him. That night they had a big party to celebrate and the only one not pleased was big brother. When Jesus told that story he could see the people thinking, there’s not a father in the world that would be that forgiving. Who could forgive and welcome a lost son or daughter like that?
It took Jesus’ disciples a while to get the point but eventually the penny dropped – the story was about God’s extravagant, unconditional love and they suddenly saw God in a totally new way.
While the Gospels tell us a lot about what Jesus did and said they also spend a lot of time telling us about Jesus’ death. At one level the death of Jesus was a huge miscarriage of justice. He was accused of blasphemy and sedition by the religious authorities of the day. The Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate couldn’t care less about blasphemy but he was worried by the charge of sedition. So when Jesus’ accusers said they would report him to Caesar if he didn’t take any action he gave permission for Jesus to be executed by crucifixion. To make sure his name would really go down in history, Pilate washed his hands before he turned Jesus over to the execution squad.
Each of the Gospel writers regards the death of Jesus as an event of cosmic proportions. They portray it as a kind of showdown between the forces of good and evil and say it was accompanied by supernatural signs like darkness and the curtain in the temple in Jerusalem being ripped apart. Jesus himself said his death was an act of choice – he could have escaped if he had wanted to. He believed that his death would deal with human sinfulness and would make possible a new relationship between God and humanity.
At the time Jesus’ disciples were utterly dejected by his death but on the third day after his death something extraordinary happened. Some of the women who had been among his closest followers went to the tomb to anoint the body with spices and perfumes but found the tomb empty. One of them called Mary Magdalene stayed behind when the others raced off to tell the men and she claimed to have met Jesus and to have actually spoken with him.
Over the next few weeks all the disciples had a similar story to tell. They all claimed to have met the risen Jesus and been changed by the experience. Changed they certainly were and that brings us back to where we began – enthusiastic believers talking about a risen Jesus and encouraging others to join the party.