Revival and Re-invention
Jesus was a Jew. He adhered to the moral universe of the Old Testament. Psalm 119 verse 1 says ‘Happy are those whose lives are faultless, who live according to the law of the Lord’. Those who are not faultless and do not live according to the law are condemned. It is an either-or regime. ‘You rebuke the arrogant, who are accursed, those who stray from your commands’ (verse 21). Psalm 139 offers the sublime, ‘If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast (verses 9,10) and the retributive, ‘Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies’ (verse 21, 22). This is the unmistakeably binary moral universe, good versus evil.
Jesus went beyond the binary moral universe of the Old Testament. ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them….For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5 : 17, 20). The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, 7) expresses the relativities of the spiritual universe. Nuance, forgiveness, love extending to enemies and non-violence are requisites. Jesus did not teach words only though. He lived this new relationship. He reached out to the dispossessed, excommunicates, lepers, adulterers, fraudsters, the detritus of human existence. He did not accept their lifestyles as they were however and he called them to the fulfilment of the Law and of the Gospel he taught and exemplified. Jesus of Nazareth was crucified outside Jerusalem in 29 AD. This was dramatic indication of his own rejection by God according to the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 21 : 23 says ‘for anyone who is hung (on a tree) is under God’s curse’. Jesus bore no hatred or ill will to his judicial murderers. ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23 : 34). Yet out of such shame and degradation of life came Christianity, based not on the life and death of Jesus only but on his resurrection, the most spectacular revelation given to the human community.
The Book of Acts documents the explosion of spiritual power in the lives of the apostles and early Christians. There is joy, community, miraculous physical and mental healing, martyrdom, exponential Church growth and missionary endeavour extending to Asia and Europe. There is Holy Communion, redemption of life, salvation and eternal hope, all under the Lordship of the Risen Jesus Christ. This spiritual revolution continued in that form for over 300 years. Eusebius of Caesarea Maritima (260/265 – 339/340 AD) wrote the first surviving history of the Christian Church as a chronologically-ordered account, based on earlier sources, complete from the period of the Apostles to his time. At Jesus’ interrogation by Pontius Pilate, Jesus told him ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place’ (John 18 : 36). His example was followed by many early Christians who chose non-violent martyrdom for Him. Tertullian of Carthage in Tunisia (c 160 - 240 AD) produced the first extensive body of Latin Christian literature. He wrote ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’ making the counter intuitive correlation between the amount of persecution and the extent of Christian Church expansion. Jesus’ crucifixion was failure according to the moral universe but it was the inspiration for eventual world wide presence in the spiritual universe.
After Christianity became the ‘religio licita’ of the Roman Empire in 313 AD the ordering of the Church’s affairs followed the pattern of the Roman civil service. Visibilities became more important, buildings, orders, ministries and physical worship. The Church held itself to be the Body of Christ continuing Christ’s incarnation. Over the years men appropriated more and more authority to themselves. Some Christians rebelled against and rejected this institutionalism. St Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226 AD) was such an one. He was a charismatic who sought to imitate Jesus, lived in poverty, communed with nature and worked miracles thus giving credence to and evidence of the spiritual universe.
The Reformation of the 16th century began as a rebellion against the corrupted hierarchy of the Church. Its foremost intellectual John Calvin did not expect include or advocate the dynamic spiritual gifts evident in the first three centuries of Christianity. In his Preface to his ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ he wrote ‘For we are not forging some new gospel, but are retaining that very gospel whose truth all the miracles that Jesus Christ and his disciples ever wrought serve to confirm’. For him the miracle had long ceased. Scotland became a Calvinistic Christian Protestant country. Yet it was more of a moral order, binary, good and evil version of Christianity than its original and nascent form. It wasn’t sacramental. It wasn’t charismatic. It was rational and it reflected the moral universe of the Old Testament within the acknowledged Christian dispensation. Sclerotic Presbyterianism continues today with legalistic and authoritarian character.
The emergence of Christian Pentecostal Churches in the twentieth century brought new expressions of the charismatic era of the early Church. Cessation had not really happened after all. The miracle had not ceased. Pentecostals emphasise the work of the Holy Spirit and the direct experience of the presence of God. They believe that faith must be powerfully real, and not something found merely through ritual or thinking. Speaking in tongues, ministries of healing and emphasis on personal salvation are central to Pentecostal identity. Pentecostal worship is energetic and dynamic unlike cerebral Reformed Christianity which is reflective and ordered. However Pentecostal Churches have strong authority structures and local and regional pastors act like bishops in episcopal traditions.
City centre Gospel churches also demonstrate high energy worship, great singing and much physically expressed rhythm. Our traditional 4/4 and 3/4 hymns seem rather staid in comparison. Many of these are beautiful though and will continue to stand the test of time. Reflective worship, thoughtful worship, prayerful worship seems outmoded. Dance, activity and drama have replaced the centrality of the sermon for many. In essence there is a loss of confidence in preaching as the main vehicle of communication. This is because Christianity in the western world itself is under attack from the new atheists who denigrate its basic tenets. Criticisms of Christianity’s claims are not new. They appear in the New Testament (Acts 17 : 32). Some leaders of the Church of England (former Archbishop Rowan Williams, for example) and some in the Church of Scotland (former Moderator of the General Assembly the late James Weatherhead, for example) have sounded an uncertain trumpet blast and in so doing have betrayed their ordination vows. Fifteen minutes of fame was found at the cost of fidelity to Jesus Christ and to the teaching of the core Christianity which is growing the Church in other parts of the human community throughout the world.
Christianity contains within itself the means of revival. It is based on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. This is the most powerful force known to human beings. All church numerical decline then is a contradiction of the very basis of Christianity. For that reason there is hope.