One of the things I point out in conversations about Jesus, and the early development of Christianity is that Jesus was never a Christian. Jesus was a Jew. All the first followers of Jesus who believed him to be the Messiah were Jewish. In the earliest accounts of Jesus, those contained in the letters of Paul of Tarsus gave him the title Christ. The title eventually became his last name. Jesus Christ. By the end of the first century there was a splitting away from Judaism by these Jesus-is-the-Messiah movement followers, which now included many gentiles. The movement, intended by Jesus to be a revolution had become a religion.
That's the problem with movements and revolutions. Eventually they either die out, or they take hold and become more and more institutional. By the end of the fourth century Christianity as it had become labeled was a fully institutional religion, the official religion of the Roman Empire.
The risk of institutionalism is it often takes on a life of its own, and the original intention of the movement is lost, or redefined, or changed altogether. George Orwell’s book Animal Farm is a classic example of the institutionalization of a movement.
So my question is, “Would Jesus be a Christian today?”
While some might say, “Of course he would!” I think the question deserves a more thoughtful response. I believe this is very important at this time in history because Christianity, and so-called Christian values are often at the center of conversations about race, sexual identity, women’s reproductive rights, gun violence, poverty, international relations, immigration, family values, economics and, yes, even in politics.
I do not pretend to think I can answer the question in 600 words. But I do believe that it is the responsibility of Christian pastors and church leaders to wrestle with it, encourage their congregations to engage in conversation about it, opening up ecumenical dialog within the incredible diversity of the Body of Christ.
I do believe I can start the process by asking the questions I have been asking for some time, and by offering possible answers, not answers that I have hoped to find, or want to find, but genuinely studying scripture with every tool that is available, being vulnerable to the possibility that what I have been taught to believe and think about Jesus might sometimes be wrong.
Let’s start with Jesus’ essential message. “The Kingdom of God has come near.” Matthew’s gospel says “Kingdom of Heaven.” In Luke Jesus says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor!”
So my questions are, first, why do so many Christians focus on getting to heaven when heaven is already here? Second, why are there so many poor around us, and why are they often demonized? By Christians.
The Book of Acts describes the activities within the early Christian movement. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as they had need.”
Does that describe your experience of a Christian community?
In fairness I must say I have had that kind of experience, and many of you probably have as well. But is that the norm? Or the exception? And if it’s not the norm, then why isn’t it? The good news is God’s reign has in fact come near. It is revealed anytime an act of grace and compassion is offered, especially when the act is on behalf of a total stranger.
“Whatever you do to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do it to me.”
—Jesus of Nazareth