Cynic’s Howl: a skeptical glance at redemption history

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part 2     

From Mother Mary To the Church’s Great Schism 

At the dawn of a new millennium, the Romans ruled the world as no other before or since. They also ruled Israel! The people of God once and again suffered the indignity of under another foreign power’s heavy boot. That infidel king had built them a temple, an edifice that rivaled Solomon’s temple. But the magnificent Herod’s temple was more to his glory than to the glory of God. Still, it was a sanctuary where the presence of God was practiced. There was a man, whose name was Simeon. He was righteous of soul and body. While a young man he had longed for the consolation of Israel. Now an old man, he frequented the temple to be closer to God with the same longing. There, he dared to pray for Israel’s salvation. There was an old woman, Anna, a destitute widow, a prophetess, some said. She lived in the temple because there was no other place to call home. With meager morsels of daily bread, she often fasted out of necessity as well as devotion. Like Simeon, Anna also dared to dream in prayers. Like Simeon, she longed to see the coming of the Messiah, God’s anointed, before she died. One day, the window of heaven opened and their prayers entered God’s inner sanctum.

In a tiny village, not far but remote from Jerusalem, along the Sea of Galilee, an angel visited a young maiden. Like Abraham and Moses, and like all mere mortals, this peasant girl trembled in terror in the angel’s epiphany. And like God with Abraham and Moses, the angel of the Lord reassured her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Like the promise to Abraham and Moses, God made an incredible and incredulous proposal – that she, without knowing a man, would be with child. She would birth a son, and her son would be great, called the Son of the Most High. A lesser mortal might have diminished in utter bucolic disbelief. But Mary, with numinous naivete, chanted, “My soul magnifies the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for He has looked on the humble estate of His servant.” And she prayed, “Behold, I am the bondservant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

In that provincial community, her new found “greatness” had adverse social consequences. Apart from the scornful wounds of slings and arrows, according to the law of God, an unmarried girl with child would be stoned to death. For it was an abomination to Almighty God. But thanks be to God, she found solace in an older, and wiser, cousin, Elizabeth. She too was expecting a child. It too was a miracle. Mary spent three good months in her home and found goodness with this good woman. And thanks be to God, Mary was also betrothed to a good man. Reassured by God in a dream, Joseph quietly put Mary away until she reached full term. As providence would dictate, Rome published an edict that all people must return to their home village to register in a new census. There, in the little town of Bethlehem, the Son of God came into the world. No one knew of this incomprehensible event. Like so many great acts of God, the world did not know of it. Only a few nameless individuals witnessed it and did not realized what they saw.

Joseph and Mary’s time away was a solace to them. When they returned to Nazareth, Mary was caressing a bundled baby. God had blessed them with a son, so many assumed. As the village gossiped, Jesus became a man, full of strength, of wisdom and of God’s Spirit. He worked in his father’s carpentry shop. That is, they made and repaired tables, chairs, doors and windows. Elizabeth’s son, John, also grew up – full of fury, of wrath and of God’s Spirit. He walked into the Judaean desert and thundered into the wind about a new repentance. His scolding moved the people into confessing their sins anew and submit anew to another baptism of forgiveness. Small crowd of troublesome souls flocked to the wilderness to hear John, and to repent and to be baptized. Some said that he was a prophet sent by God. Others wondered if he was the Christ, God’s anointed.

Jesus also came to the wilderness, and was baptized by John. While standing waist deep in the cold Jordan River, a voice from heaven was heard, affirming to Jesus, “You are my son, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Those who stood nearby also heard the rumblings of heaven, “This is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Greatly perplexed, trembled with fear, some shrugged their shoulders doubting their sensory perception. Others wondered what manner of epiphany was this. All went their separate ways.

If some from Nazareth had been with John and had heard, they did not process it well. On a sabbath day, in the open-air synagogue on a hill (the town was too poor to have an enclosed place of prayers), as it was custom, Jesus was invited to read from the appointed passage in the prophet Isaiah. After he read the “the Spirit of Yahweh is upon me” prophecy, he sat down. The congregation stared at Joseph’s son with great anticipation. Jesus spoke with great authority and understanding. At first they praised God for Jesus’ words. Then he admonished them for their lack of faith. They quickly became incensed and turned against their native son. With great threats, the men attempted to thrust him over the precipice. Miraculously, inexplicably, Jesus walked through them and never to return to Nazareth again.

Jesus became an itinerary preacher, a faith healer. Since he could not reside longer in Nazareth, he made his home in Capernaum, a fishing village along the north shore of Galilee Sea, not far from his home village. Much of his pastoral work was near or in Capernaum, in its synagogue, along its hillsides and sea shores. Soon a small band of men and women followed him. Fishermen and noblemen, poor women and women of great wealth flocked to hear his gospel of the kingdom of God. He taught them what it meant to be human, “. . .  to love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” Beyond traditional Jewish orthodoxy, he extolled them to love one another like no other, and to love their enemies as if they were friends. With equanimity, he practiced a kind of spiritual, social and economic downward mobility. He showed what it meant to walk this earth. He served those he led; he reclined at meals with sinful men; he socialized with women of poor social standing.

Without imprecation, he spoke truth to religious hypocrisy, justice to political powers, and fairness to those of opulence. Some claimed he was a man of sorrow, but no one could deny he was also a man of peace. As if contentment was a personal prerogative, he commanded those with him to choose joy above all in life. At times he preached the kingdom with simplistic similes. Most times he veiled the kingdom imagination with esoteric metaphors. He redefined kingdom theology in new categories. Most who heard him did not comprehend his teachings. They had never come across someone like this Jesus of Nazareth. He was truly the son of man and the Son of God.

For much of his ministry Jesus stayed far away from Jerusalem, the citadel of religiosity and corruption. Then the fullness of time came, according to heaven’s edict, he turned his face toward Jerusalem and wept for the city of God. At the Mount of Olives, where David and others had prayed, Jesus also prayed. There, in Jerusalem, he would spend the final days of his earthy life. It did not take long before the religious and political tides crashed against him. The Jewish religious authorities condemned him for blasphemy and convinced the Romans to execute him on their wooden rack. During the week of Passover, on the eve of the sabbath, after he celebrated the Passover Seder with his disciples, he suffered on the cross and died. Under that darkening sky, the best man this world had ever known died for the sins of the world. Except for a few women who abided with him to the end, all his followers abandoned him. One betrayed him. Another denied him. He was buried in a borrowed grave. All hope seemed dead in that same tomb.

On the early dawn of the first day of the week, the cemetery where he was buried broke its dead silence. Again without eye witnesses, the God of creation, and of redemption, raised Jesus from the dead. As God would have it, a small group of faithful women came to embalm Jesus’ body. In their haste to bury the body three days before, they had not given it proper preparation. These simple women, including Jesus’ mother, were the first eye witnesses of the empty tomb. The resurrection of Jesus was an incredible, incredulous miracle of God. When the women reported what they had seen to the other disciples, their testimony sounded like women’s idle tales. No one believed them.

Of his post-resurrection appearances, some counted forty days. It could be a symbolic number, for forty in Hebrew meant a long time.  The risen Lord spent many days with his doubting followers. Once again, few witnessed this miracle of miracles. Only privately did Jesus revealed himself. On one occasion, he did speak to a crowd of no fewer than 500.  He gave them what would be known as the grand commission, the mandate that defined and called the church into being, “As all of you are going, therefore, you are to make disciples of all people groups, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Then he validated their commission with an abiding promise, the forces of hell notwithstanding, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” And so it was, the gathering of his followers, his church, was called into being.

At first, it was an organic group of Jewish men and women that included Jesus’ mother, aunt and siblings. They led obsequious faith in the breaking of bread at one another’s home; they practiced puissant witness of Jesus in the temple, and where ever and whomever they were with. Soon they attached Jesus with “the Christ.” Soon some called upon the Lord Jesus Christ. From the beginning, they all called their new-found faith The Way. The disciples of The Way grew in number, then the churches of The Way grew in number. Through much external pain and internal resistance, what was a Judaean sect slowly morphed into a gentile religion. The gospel was brought to the gentiles not by the traditional adherents of The Way in Jerusalem. They were too narrow of mind and understanding of the world to envision that the good news of the Jewish Jesus was for the world. It took Hellenistic Jews, those of the diaspora, whose imagination of God, the gospel and the world went beyond their forebears’ racist xenophobia.

Then there was Saul of Tarsus who became the Apostle Paul. Brilliant, fearless, tendentious and arrogant, Paul thought he could conquer the Roman empire with the gospel of Jesus for God. And he almost did. With little more than an obdurate zeal, he crisscrossed the Roman map. Alone or with an entourage, whether staying in one place for years, a few weeks or just days, he boldly, and at times offensively, proclaimed that Jesus is the Christ of God and the Savior of the world. He spent as much time in municipal prisons as he spent in synagogues and lecture halls preaching Christ. By the time he was beheaded in Rome in the middle of the first century, the missionary endeavors of the church, mainly gentile, were like an incendiary fire fanned by the ardent, singular purpose of fulfilling the grand commission.

By century’s end, what began as a sectarian Jewish sect had become a global movement. As gentile adherents increased, the Jewish believers decreased. Paul was mystified by this inherent irony. He could not understand the blatant rejection of the Son of God by the people of God. The New Testament effusively witnessed that “the Jews” not only rejected Jesus but had effectuated in decimating his Way. While under house arrest, before his execution, Paul gathered the synagogue leaders and tried again to speak of Jesus. A great student of the great Gamaliel, from the Law and the Prophets, Paul reasoned that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ of God. They would not hear of it. Before they parted, Paul confessed that his “hope for Israel” weighed heavy in his heart.  In another place, in a moment of hopefulness, he blurted out, “All Israel will be saved” by Jesus.

Not so. Since Paul’s utterance, theologians have stayed up nights parsing the meaning of his “all.” Whatever his sentimental thinking, with some fancy theological gymnastics, he sought to resolve the Jewish apostasy according to the luminance of Jewish scripture. Until finally, he threw up his hands, and surrendered to the mysteries of God, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” At the end of his life, Paul could not navigate around the reality that his people had rejected Christ. If God’s redemption of Jesus was “to the Jews first, then to the gentiles” (Paul’s words), then this second grand experiment had failed maladroitly as well.

By the middle of the new millennium of the common era, Christianity had evolved formidably into a Western religion. The church of Christ reigned over Europe with unmatched dominance. Great edifices of worship in Jesus’ name to the glory of God dotted its great and small cities. Rulers of principalities, kings of dominions, powerful men of wealth, all bent the knees to the church vicars. The church’s pontification reached every facet of everyday life of every person of every home in every corner of Europe. Strangely, not unrelated, the rise of the institutionalized church adumbrated its Dark Ages. Historians asserted that the second half of first millennium was a “dark” age. Western Europe suffered a cultural, moral, social, economic, and religious decay. Millions died from diseases, plagues and famines. If the church was the light unto the world, its ascendancy over its citizenry failed to illuminate its spirituality and morality. During the dark age of European history, the church was effectively impious in its own extirpating darkness.

It happened at the beginning of the new millennium. It is called The Great Schism. The ecclesiastical fracture was long time coming. The same cultural, social, political and economic powers that the church welded in the world became the slow but certain causations that split the church from within. The Western church spoke Latin; the Eastern church spoke Greek. Both refused to understand the other. The Western church considered itself the true church, hence it called itself the Catholic (universal) Church. The Eastern church rejected that arrogance and flaunted its fidelity in true dogma, it was the Orthodox Church. At long last, in 1054, the patriarchs of Rome and of Constantinople in unison excommunicated the other in the name of Christ. “The church’s one foundation, is Jesus Christ her Lord” notwithstanding, now there were two churches on earth who claimed to be the one true church.

Then there was an embarrassing papal schism that imbued the western church after the Great Schism when three rival cardinals claimed to be the pope and excommunicated the other two in the name of Christ. By the time the conflict was resolved, the institutionalized church was utterly corrupt in faith and practice. Cleric’s turpitude and political intrigue pervaded the church. The Word of God suffered, and ignorance prevailed. The clerics’ uninformed teaching and heretical preaching suffused their illiterate parishioners’ superstitions. While Christ’s return tarried, the church, in a fatuous fog, had drifted from the moorings of the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s prayer and the grand commission.


continue in part 3