The history of my own family comes to mind as I try to appreciate the earliest history of the Christian religion. All four of my grandparents were born in the north of Italy, the Alpine region. They heard the good news of America, a far better place to raise a family and achieve the good life. A common story among us Americans, but it is still hard for us, their beneficiaries, to appreciate the enormous risk our forebears were taking for our sake.
The point of this comparison between the early Christian disciples and our own ancestors is that both were overtaken by a vision they could not ignore: they just had to pursue it! An offer too good to refuse, no matter the cost! Scaling that down a bit, we might recall how often we’ve seen or heard or read something that pleased us so much that we could hardly wait to tell others about it and encourage them to have the same experience. We human beings are like that, partly because we can then enjoy these things again through the imagined enjoyment of others. There is also deep within us the conviction that whatever is good and life-giving is meant to be distributed as widely as possible, making life better for us all.
It’s too bad, I think, that reading publicly on Sunday isolated verses from the Old and New Testament, disconnected from the whole dramatic story from which they were drawn, can leave us so unmoved, often just plain bored. Let’s be honest: when the lector starts out with, “This is a reading from the book of the prophet — whoever,” many minds instantly click off. But when we make the effort to realize what human beings of 2,000-or-so years ago willingly endured in order to pass on a treasure to us, we can appreciate what a tragedy it is that we often find writings by them and about them dull or irrelevant.
Another aspect of the problem is that the world has changed so much in the past two millennia that not only words of the past but also ideas and images and symbols of the past are often almost meaningless to us; we hear them as they appear in the scripture passages and can be put off by them. They can sound too pious, too religious, too unrelated to life as we know it. Even the theology has changed radically; I think the best example of that is that more & more of us Christians do not any longer interpret the death of Jesus as a sacrifice that paid for our sins. We find it inconceivable that God would use violence as a tool of redemption, especially when Jesus was resolutely dedicated to radical non-violence. Instead, we see the death of Jesus as the crime of those who hated him and his message; and we see the measure of his love for us in his acceptance of a death he could have avoided. Such shifts in Christian awareness call for major adjustments on our part.
During these many weeks of Easter – the white & gold period of the church year – we are the people in foreign lands to whom the apostles and disciples are offering the gospel. That Good News is simple and profound and can be stated in very few words: God is love; Jesus invites us to build a good world here on earth and then to follow him through the darkness of death into eternal life. No message will ever upstage that!