Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- A number of writers who deal with the rise of Christianity claim that in the early days ‘theology’, that is, an understanding of what Christianity, faith in Jesus, was about, did not exist. This claim is to me preposterous, as the reading of any Gospel; the Letters of Paul and the Petrine Letters make abundantly clear.
“Reverence the Lord Christ in your hearts, and always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have.” This is part of our reading from 1 Peter (3:15-18), and it makes very clear that the early Christians did have a belief system and that they were equipped to explain that belief to others. Put simply that belief was in eternal life in/with Christ.
Different New Testament works express this differently. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke frequently have Jesus talking about the Kingdom of God or Heaven. Many Jews in the time of Jesus expected the full reign of God on earth to come quickly, and they mistakenly hoped for God to give them absolute power over their enemies. Jesus had a very different view of the kingdom, one in which the entire cosmos would be totally open to the grace, love and compassion, which is the identity of the Father.
Jesus looked forward to this valuation of human life in all its fullness with God both as a present event, as shown in his miracles, and as a future still to come in eternity. St Paul speaks of us becoming ‘heirs of God’, and St Peter of our becoming quite literally ‘sharers in the divine nature’. St John, whose gospel we read today, (Jn 14:15-21) understood this as a relationship of deep and personal intimacy with Christ and the Father. “On that day you will understand that I am in my Father and you in me and I in you.” We are that close to God! Jews did not have a problem with the idea of life after death, but it was precisely this closeness, this intimacy in the relationship between God, Christ and humanity, which so scandalised the Jews that they killed Jesus.
Why precisely should this message have made such an impact on what became a largely Gentile Church, and led eventually to the Roman Empire espousing the Christian faith and getting rid of hundreds of years of paganism? Imagine what their world was like; the average life span was about 48 years; female deaths in childbirth were very heavy; and infant mortality astronomical. The redoubtable Pliny lost three wives and had no natural heirs, just like his uncle who had adopted him as his heir. Cities were very dangerous places; badly constructed buildings often collapsed killing their inhabitants; fires raged through whole cities; plagues frequently broke out and took their toll; famines were an ever present reality; not to mention the devastations of invading armies; earthquakes; riots, and the dangers of a world with poor medical skills and no knowledge of bacteria.
We know that the Christian faith captured numbers in Antioch simply because in one outbreak of the plague Christians did not run for safety as was the norm, but stayed to nurse the sick, part of their Christian duty. As a result many more survived simply because they were hydrated and cleaned. As a result pagans were highly impressed by the power of their God and converted. When we add to this the fact that at the end of mortal life pagans, with the exception of the ‘divine’ emperor expected no future at all post mortem, whereas Christians taught that they were promised eternal life with God, and we can begin to see some of the attraction of the faith which increasingly drew numbers of believers.
What a promise was made to them, and to us: that we shall be ‘loved by God the Father’; that we too, in Christ shall be ‘in’ the Father, sharing his vision of the world, living with his infinite possibility. This surely is why Christianity gained followers, because, in opposition to the complete lack of hope in paganism, it promised real and lasting life beyond death to all believers. Christianity had good reasons for their hope, and in a world where mortal life was already pretty grim for the majority. It was very attractive.
This surely is the picture we have in our reading from Acts, (8:5-8, 14-17), where Philip both preached the Good News and demonstrated its effectiveness by his miracles. He took the gospel to the needy and we too have to remember that we, shielded as we are by modern medicine and other benefits, still have a great need for God and for all that he will give us both now and in eternity. We can turn to him in our own need and in our desperation for the needs of others, both close as family members and for the parts of the world so frequently in turmoil. We are ‘loved’ by the Father and designed and intended to share his life, nothing more and certainly nothing less.