“Why Did Christianity Succeed?”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
February 15, 2020
The title of my message for you today is taken from a series on PBS’s Frontline about Christianity. The people at Frontline began the series by asking some of the world’s greatest scholars of Christianity and religion to answer the question, “Why did Christianity succeed?” As the series opens, showing pictures of the Holy Land and ancient mosaics of Jesus and his followers, a deep voice rises above the theatrical background music to say, “What did Christianity offer its believers that made it worth social estrangement, hostility from neighbors, and possible persecution and death.” It gave me the chills the first time I saw it. But really, was it the offering of salvation and heaven that helped Jesus’ movement grow and grow? Is it the liturgies and the music and the beautiful architecture of our worship spaces? Did it have something to do with captivating preachers who could persuade people into giving up everything to follow Jesus? Well, as it turns out, the answer is on one hand rather simple and on the other hand very complex.
Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, offers three reasons why she thinks Christianity became a movement of great drama and power.
First, Pagels points us to the gospel of Mark, the shortest of the gospels. It is a strange and extraordinary book. If we were to read the gospel of Mark apart from the other books of the Bible, we would be reading a story about a country preacher who comes from nowhere and is enrobed in incredible power. This country preacher heals people, casts their demons out, says strange things, and startles even the people we would call today religious fanatics. And just as quickly as Mark jumps in to telling the story of Jesus, about halfway through his gospel he turns his focus to Jesus’ agonizing and humiliating death. We’ve just gotten to know Jesus through Mark’s eyes and just like that he will be taken away.
Pagels has spent her life studying original manuscripts of the gospel of Mark and while digging through pictures of ancient manuscripts, Pagels discovered that the original version of Mark’s gospel said nothing about the resurrection of Jesus. It is original form, Mark’s gospel ended abruptly with Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome finding the tomb empty on Easter and running away in fear. It was not until 200 hundred or 300 years after Mark that some editing was done to include more information about why the tomb was empty. This means that in its earliest form, Mark’s story of Jesus was one of devastating loss and immense human pain with not one bit of a resolution. For many of Mark’s early followers, who faced the Roman executioner if they were discovered to be followers of Jesus and who were victims of war, famine, oppression, and sensless violence, the pull towards Christianity was real. And it is because the faith was real about the human condition and did not try to paint over human suffering with nice religious sayings or fluffy theology.
Next, Pagels thinks that Christianity had such a meteoric rise in the beginning because our faith places so much dignity on human life. At the very beginning of the Bible, we learn that we are created in the image of God. As the story of the Bible unfurls, we start to see glimpses of what God looks like through faithful, hardworking, generous, and compassionate servants like Moses and Miriam, Deborah, Ruth, Esther, and Daniel. Then, as the New Testament breaks in with a new story to tell, our faith makes the claim that if we want to know what God looks like, how God thinks and acts, we need only look to Jesus. And who is Jesus? To Mark, he was a country preacher. To Matthew, he was a baby born to teenage parents in a foreign land, who just days after his birth had to flee with his parents to another foreign land because of a murderous tyrant. To Luke, Jesus is a healer who is deeply concerned with the emotional and spiritual health of his people. To John, Jesus is so entirely human that he weeps after learning that his friend Lazarus has died. Jesus shows us the image of God, the image that is imprinted on us and every other human being in all times and places.
The gods of the ancient world and ancient religions weren’t anything like the God we know in Jesus. The gods of the ancient world looked like the emperor and the powerful people that he surrounded himself with. Caesar Augustus was so full of himself that he once ordered all the sculptors in Rome to use a likeness of his face when carving new statues for Rome’s many temples. But then here comes Jesus, saying that every person—man, woman, child, slave, barbarian, king or peasant, no matter who—is made in the image of God and of enormous value in the eyes of God. That is an extraordinary message and extraordinarily good news to many people who never saw their lives as anything of value. When you are constantly reminded that you are worth nothing by the words and actions of others, by the people who are in power over you, hearing that you are sacred, honored, and valuable in God’s eyes is a balm to even the most injured soul.
The third thing Pagels says helped Christianity grow so quickly and powerfully in those early years has to do with the community Jesus built around himself. She says that many, given the huge gap between the haves and have-nots in Rome, were drawn to Jesus because he laid out very specific directions for how his community would care for people. As an example right from the life of Jesus, nearly every time he sat down to teach or visit someone, he fed them and anyone else who was hungry. Jesus even extended his table and grace to those in society who were responsible for the horrible gap that led to so many destitute and hungry people. But Jesus had a particularly big heart for people in need, and he commanded his followers to keep those in need at the front and center of their attention. “Just as you do to one of these least members of family, so you do to me,” Jesus once said. Don’t go looking for me in the temple or in the sky or in your rituals, Jesus said---feed the hungry, shelter the widow, and care for the orphans and you’ll find me like you’ve never found me before. What is there not to love about a movement that is entirely focused on the well-being and wholeness of others?
I bring you these thoughts today about how and why Christianity grew and grew in the early years of the movement because I think it is good every now and again to be reminded of what we are really about as Jesus’ people. And frankly, I need these reminders weekly and sometimes daily, to be honest. You see, it is easy for me to become distracted in my walk with the Lord and as I’ve shared with you before, I’m even prone to despair when I think of the enormous issues facing us today. I need to be reminded that Jesus knows what being human is all about, that he knows what it is like to suffer and experience pain. I need to be reminded that he did not come to take our pain and suffering away, but to speak meaning and hope into it. Jesus did not come to slap a catchy religious bumper sticker on the broken-down car that is the human experience—he came to acknowledge that it is broken, to touch and heal its wounds, and to remind us that we are not what we suffer because we are the children of God.
I need to be reminded all the time that I am created in the image of God and that every one of my neighbors is created in the image of God, too. I need to be reminded that despite an overarching cultural narrative, the poor are not poor because they like being poor and they are not poor because they’ve just chosen to be lazy. That could be me at any moment. I know there is exception to every rule, but I believe deep down in my heart of hearts that no one actively choses to live in need. I need to be reminded that even if my theology and my religious observances and my sermons and my writing is perfect, but there are people sitting on the doorstep waiting to be acknowledged and served, none of that other stuff matters to God. I need to be reminded that the greatest and most important calling in life is to serve others.
And I need to be reminded that this thing we call church is really just a community of broken and beautiful people in search of God. The devil gets into the details when it comes to the church. What I mean by that is that the devil likes to point us in directions and give us tasks that really have nothing to do with Jesus and his radical way of love. We get bogged down in developing a plan for how the front doors will be refinished every other year. We pour over budgets and investments and by-laws and procedures and policies. We try to concoct elaborate evangelism plans that look eerily similar to multi-level marketing schemes because we think that more people coming through the door will make everything better. I once served a church that formed a committee to decide on the matter of whether or not clapping was acceptable in worship and I’ve heard that something similar happened in this church’s past. And when I say ‘we’ I mean the church throughout the world, but I also mean those of us in this congregation, too. I really do believe it is the devil because what is better in the eyes of evil than Christians who forget what they are all about? There is nothing better, and so I need these reminders—and I’m guessing that maybe some of you here today need these reminders, too.
We serve and worship a God who loves us and honors our pain, our suffering, our joy. We bear the image of God and that means that we are worth more dignity, respect, and honor than most institutions and structures are willing to give to us. All of our neighbors bear that image, too. We have been called not into a religious institution or a specific denomination or a corporation or a company but into a community that is called the Body of Christ. Within this community we are called to love one another, to serve one another, and to reach beyond the walls of the church in service and love to anyone and everyone in need. And we are called, by Jesus, to live lives that are in total opposition to the usual ways of the world. We’re good on the whole don’t murder thing, but Jesus takes it a step farther and tells us that we must not even harbor ill thoughts against our neighbors. Don’t just stay away from adultery, Jesus says, cut out the eye or cut off your hand if it causes you to sin. Don’t even swear, our Lord tells us, just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and leave it at that.
These are the basics, my friends. These things led to Jesus’ movement taking off so many years ago and I want you to be encouraged because they are also the things that will propel his movement forward today through each and every one of us. That is our calling and as we return to the things of Jesus and use them to build up this community of faith and those around us, we will see the glory of God and we will take a hold of the abundant life of God like never before. And may we never forget that ours is a faith of resurrection, of new life, and that through us, with us, in us, Jesus is alive today and he’s turning the world around. Amen.