Beneath The Skin
(Not a reader? Take a listen instead ⇓)
What’s beneath the skin of our collective Christian identity?
Has Christianity lost touch with its original radical and beating heart? Are we so enamored with the power and prestige of this present world that we have forgotten our own history?
Are we, the church, so entertained by the lights and sounds, by the choreographed music, by the dimly lit stages and almond-milk-lattes-after-service that we’ve forgotten the ancient truths our early Christian brethren lived and died for?
Have we become mere spectators to our own Christian faith?
The Birth Of ‘The Jesus Movement’
The modern western church lives a comfortable existence. She wants for nothing.
With both resources and freedom in worship and expression of faith, the church looks remarkably different today than she did in her fraught, early days. Birthed during the reign of Tiberius Caesar Augustus (14 AD – 37 AD), “the Jesus movement” initially attracted little attention from the Romans; assumed to be merely an offshoot of Judaism. Yet it soon became clear that this movement was more than a Judaistic sidenote, that it could not be contained nor extinguished and that it threatened the authority of Caesar himself.
Christians everywhere preached the news of Jesus, not just as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, but as Lord, Saviour, and King; over and above Caesar. Unlike the Jewish community, who lived and worshipped largely by themselves, Christians were active evangelists, eager to share the good news about Jesus with all who would listen.
The first century was a spiritual explosion; fueled by the reality of the resurrection of Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The preaching of the gospel found its most fruitful response amongst Gentiles – pagans – who would have formerly given allegiance to Caesar and embraced a belief in many deities. Now, these new converts rejected their pagan gods and confessed belief in one God – the God of Israel, giving their allegiance to Jesus, His appointed Saviour and designated King. They were convinced by the witnesses who spoke boldly of Jesus’ resurrection, particularly the compelling evidence of men like Paul the Apostle, also later called ‘the apostle to the Gentiles‘, who had seen the risen Christ for himself.
People responded, literally, in their thousands, and Rome realised it had a real problem on its hands.
“By the end of the second century, the new faith was on its way to becoming the most forceful and compelling movement within the empire.” (Bruce L Shelley)
By simply living in accordance with the teachings of Jesus, giving him their allegiance, they had effectively rejected Caesar, a pagan ruler, and broken from the tradition of emperor worship.
This worship of the emperor, which, by AD249 had been made universal and compulsory for every nation in the Roman Empire, was primarily a test of political loyalty. Those who would not swear allegiance to Caesar and acknowledge him and each successor to the title with the words “Lord of the Earth, Invincible Power, Glory, Honour, Blessed, Great, Worthy Art Thou To Inherit The Kingdom.” were branded revolutionaries and traitors of the empire.
The Spread Of Faith And Conviction
Had the Christians been willing to simply formally verbalise that ‘Caesar is Lord’, they could have continued worshipping Jesus as much as they wanted…but the Christians would not compromise.
What was beneath the skin?
There are several reasons that the Christian faith experienced such a remarkable spread, despite persecution.
Firstly, the witnesses to the resurrection were clearly possessed by a burning, unshakeable conviction as to the reality of who Jesus was and what had been accomplished in his death and resurrection. They knew that this good news had the power to transform the lives of men and women, that finally humanity had been redeemed, and that they themselves were the recipients of immeasurable grace. They simply could not keep the news to themselves and their unswerving belief, despite every obstacle (including the threat of death or actual death) could not deter them.
Secondly, the practical outworking of the Christian faith, demonstrated in acts of love, was astonishing and quite unheard of in Roman times. It was their most defining feature, remarked upon by the pagans with grudging admiration.
It found its expression in care for the poor, widows and orphans, for those brethren who had been imprisoned or condemned, and particularly for brethren, who due to poverty, could not afford an honourable burial. The early church would often provide services for such persons, believing care in death as well as life was an active expression of love for those made in the image of God.
“Atheism (ie the Christian faith) has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar and that the godless Galileans’ care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them” | Emperor Julian, (332-63)
As Jesus had promised, by demonstrating this kind of love, sacrificial and all-encompassing, all people knew that these believers were part of ‘the Jesus movement’. Just as they had been loved, they now displayed that same kind of love for each other and others, proving without a doubt that they were disciples of the Christ.
The Price Of Prestige
The early church flourished as a separate identity from the empire for a brief few centuries, with the struggle between Christian worship and Caesar worship defining the first 300 years of church history. Many martyrs went to their deaths, refusing to recant their faith in Jesus and give allegiance to Caesar.
Yet the church was to face a far more insidious threat in the centuries that followed; more dangerous than persecution, poverty or martyrdom. Power and prestige came to the church in the form of open favour from Rome’s pagan Emperor, Constantine.
Formerly outlawed and persecuted, the Christian church now experienced a sudden reversal in fortune. But Constantine, represented as the ideal Christian ruler and ushering in a new age of salvation for the church, still retained much of his pagan origins.
What was beneath the skin?
The advantages for the church were real enough but there was a price to pay. Constantine ruled Christian bishops as he did his civil servants and demanded unconditional obedience to official pronouncements, even when they interfered with purely church matters. There were also masses that now streamed into the officially favoured church. Prior to Constantine’s conversion, the church consisted of convinced believers. Now many came who were politically ambitious, religiously disinterested and still half-rooted in paganism. This threatened to produce not only shallowness and permeation by pagan superstitions but also the secularisation and misuse of religion for political purposes.” | Bruce L Shelley
Did the church ever recover from this melding of state and faith, this union of empire and religion? Did she ever break loose from the seductive grasp of the pagan Caesar, no longer enemy, but sponsor and friend, and return to her first love?
Did she find again the burning conviction that Jesus alone was Lord and King over all the earth and her allegiance was to him?
At times, perhaps.
But, equally, at times, she has colluded with the powers of this world, exchanging her birthright for what amounted to a mess of pottage.
She has had, in many stages of her historical past, a reputation of being alive but beneath the skin, she was dying. “Wake up”, her Lord and King has implored “and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.“
Faithful individuals remained; arguably, the heart and soul of the church herself, but often enough, the official church sacrificed such individuals in order to appease the empire, in order to maintain control, to the detriment of humanity’s salvation.
What lay beneath the skin?
The Church Of Our Times
What of the church today?
What lies beneath her skin?
Behind the powerful vocals from a vast and blue-lit stage, beneath the skinny jeans with tastefully ripped knees, between the cleverly worded messages from the pulpit, is there still a radical and beating heart?
After asking Jesus into their hearts, do Christians still ask Jesus into their lives? The church may profess to still love Jesus but would she die for him?
Still. In every time and in every place, there has always been a movement, a people; the invisible church. A generation that does not lose hope in the church it sees but instead endeavours to become the church it dreams of.
As in times past, the message of good news continues to be enacted in the lives of ordinary people and in circumstances that are familiar and relatable to us all; stories of mothers and fathers, children and parents, wealthy people, and those in poverty, in bustling market places and domestic households. This collective community of faith – the church – will look different throughout time and throughout culture, yet the ancient truths remain embedded within the lives of those faithful to the message of good news.
The skin is just the outward appearance. How the church has looked, from the outside, has changed many times during the centuries. Her skin is unimportant.
But what lies beneath the skin is vitally important. Is there more to the church today than simply a hip social media account or a buzzing Sunday service? Is there an emphasis on substance over reputation? Is she still to be found among the simple, the humble, those deemed by this world to be foolish and irrelevant?
Or does the church sit alongside the culture of celebrity and, in an age of consumer-driven interests, is she more engrossed in giving people what they want rather than what they need.
The early believers weren’t just Sunday Christians, whose most active participation in their Christian faith was simply attending a weekly service. They didn’t just turn up for one hour in the week; they shared their entire lives with each other, week in and week out.
They didn’t go to church, they were church.
They ate and worshipped together, they divided their resources and distributed to whoever had need. They “ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favour with all the people“. They evangelised and discipled, their conviction deeply rooted in and flowing from this focused centre; that “one man died for everyone.” They knew that what this meant for humanity was dramatic and life-changing; effectively turning the world upside down.
Believers were added to their fellowship through baptism, “buried with Jesus into death“, and bound together in unity through communion, Jesus’ “death and resurrection“. They became people of the kingdom, joined together in the fellowship of the King, the risen Christ, whose kingdom is over and above all other powers in this world.
Beneath The Skin
It’s imperative for the church as she now progresses into the 21st century that she reclaims this identity and the authority that is deeply rooted in and connected to Jesus, her risen king. It’s vital that Jesus is truly first in her affections and that his will and sovereign rule supersedes all. It’s crucial that she rediscovers the transforming power that gave her life and empowers her still.
Beneath her skin, there must be a depth to her character, a sense of resourcefulness and humility, sacrifice and love. She must resolve to authentically and completely represent Jesus to the world, not just the parts of him that are palatable. She won’t be satisfied to merely speak of Jesus but be compelled to lead humanity to him, to not just sing of Jesus but to baptise and disciple in his name. Strength and dignity are the garments she chooses to clothe herself with, and wisdom and kindness the teachings that spring from her lips.
Her form is unimportant: she knows that outward beauty can be deceitful and that it is the heart of her, the burning devotion and the fearless and uncompromising intention to live according to the teachings of Jesus, that will cause praise to rise up to God in Heaven.
The greatest hope for the church in our time and place is that we will see a passionate and stirring revival. That Christians, no matter their denomination or creed, will be emboldened to return to the foot of the cross and give their lives anew to the resurrected king. That collectively, we, the church, the ‘woman of valour‘ for whom he died, will shine brightly in a darkened and impoverished world through our most basic and guiding principle: that is, to incarnate Christ.
That beneath our collective skin is a radical and beating heart still.
“So come, move, let justice roll on like a river; let worship turn into revival. Lord, lead us back to you.” | insp. Amos 5:24