Thursday, May 22, 2014

Following Jesus in Suffering - The Church's Story (pt3)

The early church didn't tell each other stories about how the gospel would give them their best life now. They weren't excited about how Jesus wanted to make them rich in the empire of Rome. They lived in the shadow of the cross, knowing that they were following after a man killed by the empire they would now live to resist, until they would likely die by its hand.

John Mark and Peter were both restored after having lost faith in the face of suffering and persecution. John Mark was rejected by a man of God for his failure. Peter rejected Jesus himself. Tradition says that it was the night Peter denied Jesus that John Mark had hosted the disciple's last Supper and the two had likely met for the first time. Later, John Mark would support Peter in his ministry. They travelled together and collaborated on the gospel of Mark, the first and oldest of the four scriptural accounts of Jesus' life. Peter's first hand testimony became the foundation for the work that John Mark penned (Peter was not a great writer himself).  The gospel became a testimony that supported Peter's teachings. It also became a main source for the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Almost all of Mark is retold in Matthew and Luke, often word-for-word. The church could thank the ministry of a liar and a reject for the recorded teachings during the first years of rapid growth in the early Jesus movement.

The Suffering of the Early Church

Peter wrote his letters to "the diaspora", Christians who had fled their homes to avoid the persecution of the colonizing Roman empire. The Roman army moved across Palestine, relentlessly destroying all resistance in its path. The indigenous people would be subjected to oppression by taxes and assimilation by the occupying forces. A sophisticated propaganda machine told the native citizens of Rome what they wanted to hear, that the colonies were welcomed by the indigenous people, and their country was still a free republic. Heavy taxes were forced upon the newly subjugated people, even to the point of abject poverty. The seized goods would be taken to Roman cities where officials would claim they had been gifts, evidence of the goodwill and gratitude of the colonized people.

Some of the native people were more successful in resisting the monolithic Roman army than others. The French speaking Gauls remained a free people for a very long time before being taken over. The Jewish people revolted against their oppressor numerous times in the years before Jesus' birth. The last revolt was around the time Jesus was born. Many of Jesus' disciples were named for these Jewish revolutionaries. Resistance was the cultural blood of Jesus' people in his day. The last major Jewish uprising was in the sixties and seventies CE, and led to the final decisive victory by Rome, when the newly built temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and the people scattered.

History reveals the terrible reality that those who ran and hid from the advancing Roman world had more success than those who remained to forcibly resist.  The Celts deftly avoided the Roman empire for an age as they fled across the land. As horrible as it was for the early Christians to live as refugees away from home, their spread across the land was not only their survival, but actually led to the growth and strength of the church as a whole.

Peter probably wrote his letters from the City of Rome, with help for his first letter (written in a higher Greek than a Galilean may have known), and penning the second by himself (in a lower Greek). In both letters he repeats his encouragement to the dispersed believers to endure suffering for the sake of the gospel.

1 Peter 1:6-7 (ESV)
6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

For their first few generations, Christians were met with suspicion everywhere they went. They were already foreign to the cities in which they settled, but their customs served to further separate them. The early Christians didn't sacrifice to the local gods, a political and social faux pas. To the city government, this would communicate that they didn't support their authority. Their neighbours would likely believe that these Christian foreigners didn't care for the welfare of their community. The Christian abstinence from temple worship gave neighbours an excuse to blame them for any natural disasters or poor crops. These strange new immigrants were frequently labelled "atheists" by the locals in their community. Following Jesus was a lonely life.

When Christians refused to participate in the common traditions of the mainstream culture, their neighbours were offended. Worse, misunderstanding the active practices of the early Christians gave their neighbours a reason to further reject and even fear them. The behaviour of the early Christians were strange to the pagan world. They met in each others homes, early in the morning, sharing meals and possessions. They called each other "brother" and "sister", and kissed each other in greeting. They spoke of eating a meal together where they shared the body and blood of their Saviour. Rumours abounded of orgiastic incest, and even cannibalism. Christians were a strange and feared minority, alone among a xenophobic majority in an oppressive colonizing empire. Life was hard.

Peter reminded the early Christians that their path of obedience that set them apart was according to God's plan and purpose. He would accomplish his work through them. Though the path to the cross was hard for Jesus, he conquered death by rising again. These temporary troubles for them caused by their abstinence from and resistance to the empire would also result in God's perfect plan, his Kingdom would still come on earth.

1 Peter 2:4-10 (ESV)
 4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5  you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For it stands in Scripture:

“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
    a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

7 So the honour is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,

“The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone”,

8 and

“A stone of stumbling,
    and a rock of offence.”

They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. 10  Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

They were rejected by their neighbours and lonely, but they followed in the footsteps of a true King who had suffered worse. The offense they caused the neighbours who didn't understand them was the offense of Jesus, whose message of ultimate surrender is an offense to all who demand self-sufficiency. They were scattered and separated from their brothers and sisters, but Peter reminded them that they were part of a larger Kingdom, citizens of the living Kingdom of God that was growing in and through them to affect and change the empire from within. The walls and roads of Rome would fall under the slow work of the moss and lichen and weeds, the living Kingdom Citizens faithfully serving and loving together as a testimony of a different world. Their hope undermined the authority of Rome to oppress them. Their endurance would be the ruin of the Roman empire, and any principality or power that would seek to follow after it.

On Mark's Gospel and Peter's Letters

No comments:

Post a Comment