How has the Christian faith evolved ? Was it just a given that Jesus would want to see a church founded and created in his name ? In the movie “ The Last Temptation of Christ “ directed by Martin Scorsese ( 1988), there is a conversation between Jesus and Paul where Jesus says to him “ No Man, you got it all wrong ! “ Our faith has evolved now for over twenty centuries and the question arises how has Christianity continued to thrive in an ever-increasing pluralistic world ?
Professor Bart Ehrman of the University Of North Carolina in his book “ The Triumph of Christianity : How A Forbidden Religion Swept the World “ notes that in 30 CE there were 20 Christians, and by 400 CE there were 29,478,000 Christians ( P. 294 ). As of 2012, there were an estimated 2.4 billion adherents, nearly a third ( over 31% ) of 7.7 billion of all people on Earth. Islam was second with 1.8 billion adherents (2012 ) or 23% of the global population. Hinduism 1.15 billion, Jewish 23 million ( 2015 ), Buddhism 488 million ( 7%).
Christianity was able to become visible and popular due to the fact that it practiced hospitality. The followers of the Way championed sectors of the Roman Empire population who were unpopular. Early Christians were advocates for slaves , women, orphans and outcasts among others.
Also, the influence of Paul cannot be underestimated. According to Bart Ehrman Paul’s conversion happens about 32-33 CE, roughly two years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul’s evangelistic mission focused on urban areas where populations were dense. His letters mention Christian communities in Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, Colossae, Laodicea, Ephesus and the region of Galatia (P. 58 ).
Paul masterfully marketed the Christian community to the growing middle classes, to the shop owners, merchants, traders, etc. These people were drawn to the Christian community not only by the preaching but because of the actions of hospitality and charity towards the poor and the vulnerable.
The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus depicted in Luke’s Gospel again highlights the concern for the poor.
Lazarus , the beggar, dies and he is carried to Abraham’s side. The rich man dies and goes to Hades. He looks up and sees Abraham far away with Lazarus at his side. Abraham states that Lazarus will be comforted while the rich man will be in agony. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his father’s house to warn his five brothers. Abraham replies no “ they have Moses and the prophets. “
Abraham also turns down the rich man’s request that someone from the dead should come and warn his brothers to repent. Abraham replies:
“ If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not listen to someone from the dead. “ ( Luke 16: 31 )
When Jewish believers of Jesus break off from the Synagogue around 88 CE there begins the early period of the people of the Way ( the first followers of Jesus ). More Gentiles and Pagans join this community. By 312 CE the Roman Emperor Constantine experiences his conversion to Christianity. As Emperor, he declares Christianity to a “ preferred “ religion in the Roman Empire that came with unique imperial privileges and funding. Christianity would not be declared the official religion of Rome until the reign of Emperor Theodosius I in 391-392 CE ( P.P. 13-14 )
So, the question becomes does the Church fair better, are we more truthful to our faith commitment as Christians where we are an illicit religion or when we are a preferred religion ?
Ehrman argues that in the fourth century the massive conversions occurred in part because of Constantine and the favors that he showered upon the Church, including tax advantages, a yet as time went on the rate of church growth slowed down. The more people who converted to become Christian, the fewer non-Christians there were to convert. They could not convert at the same rate because there were not as many of them ( P. 293 ).
A lot of people would acknowledge today that the mega-churches are experiencing the greatest church growth. Here you have big buildings, arena worship with big screens, bands that play. Emphasis upon show and spectacle. I remember years ago that I went to a church. I spoke with someone early before the service and they abruptly departed because they had to go and “ rehearse. “
I wonder what interpretation of the Gospel and what theology is being conveyed here? Is it one of service or is it one of comfort ?
As mentioned before, Early Christianity impacted the first through the fourth centuries due to the emphasis upon hospitality and charity. The concern for setting up medical care for the sick and indigent was also greatly appreciated by people who would become Christian followers.
Currently, our membership for The United Church of Christ is about 825,000 members (2019- United Church of Christ Statistics ). We still have about 39 conferences in the denomination. However, this past year we have seen the merger of the former Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island Conferences now becoming the new T1 Conference. There is also a similar configuration between South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa which will be led by one conference minister.
This configuration is in its early stages of development and it remains to be seen if they will be effective models for delivery of ministry, let alone be more cost effective.
The Early Christians were effective because they proclaimed that God was alive and present in the world through the Resurrected Jesus. Today, we, in the United Church of Christ, , maintain that “ God is still speaking. “ God is still doing new things in new times and in new places.
What might that time and place be for us ? What might our service, our witness be for our community and for the world ?
The Roman statesman, orator and intellectual Symmachus stated:
“ Even if others choose a different religious path, there should be freedom of worship, not constriction. All should worship according to the dictates of their own conscience. It’s just that all worship should be considered as one. We look on the same stars, the sky is common, the same world surrounds us. What difference does it make by what pains each seeks the path ?We cannot attain to so great a secret by one road. “ ( P. 273 ).
Fighting the good fight of faith continues in our Christian proclamation, in our teaching and in our service and witness. May our words and actions be consistent, and may we live out the reality that God is with us in all times and places, in our life, in our death, and in our life beyond death.
May it be so.