Suppose it was like this…

Jesus was a man born in the usual way. Mary and Joseph were his parents, and he had some brothers and sisters. His home town, Nazareth, was a small hamlet occupied mostly by poor peasants who eked out a living on small plots of land that were increasingly appropriated by the wealthy. Four miles away, the city of Sepphoris was a bustling scene of government projects that provided day labor for the peasantry, and often Joseph took Jesus with him to the city as they sought to support the family.

Through conversations at home as well as through contacts made in Sepphoris, the young man developed a faith in the God of Israel as revealed in the Hebrew scriptures. Above all, this faith was informed by the prophets, who both criticized the powerful who stole from the poor, and who proclaimed a God of justice.

Sympathetic to the plight of his over-taxed and oppressed countrymen, Jesus heard of John, in the wilderness to the east by the River Jordan calling for repentance and righteousness, and baptizing penitents. Jesus became a disciple of John, where he befriended others of like mind. Wanting to be more involved in the life of the people, Jesus left John, accompanied by some of his friends, and started life as an itinerant teacher.

He soon attracted followers. Not everyone, but some. And the question is: why? Why were people attracted to Jesus and why did they follow him?

The answer is quite simple. They did not become disciples because he walked on water, or turned water into wine, because his teaching was so unique, or because he claimed to be somebody special, like a Messiah. They were intrigued at first and committed later because they saw in him what they in essence were and could become. We are lost in egotism, he identified with the plight of others. We seek meaning in life, he had it. We are blind to the love inherent in all reality, he knew it and lived it. We too easily cut ourselves off from our fellow humans, Jesus reached out and embraced. The special power of Jesus was nothing other than the fact that he was fully human, in the best and loving sense of the word.

Not everyone was open to the person standing before them. We don’t know why, but because of prior experience some of us find it difficult to break loose and become open to newness. Some did, however, and their numbers grew. The innermost circle of Jesus’ family of friends, whose names we have, numbered about 25 women and men. Capernaum was their home base, and they travelled about in Galilee and once down to Jerusalem.

Jesus was drawn to Jerusalem. It was the center of Jewish faith and life, the Temple was there, along with the priestly class, and at the Passover, the pilgrims brought the temporary population to as many as 300,000 people. Some of them had heard of Jesus, and were curious about what he was like and what he had to say. Sensing a trouble-maker and a potential incident, before anything could happen Pilate had his troops take Jesus away to be crucified.

The disciples were terrified. They reconnoitered in the room where they had celebrated the Passover and tried to make sense out of what had just happened. They cried, they embraced, they hid. And then the most amazing transformation took place. In their being together, they came to believe that although Jesus had indeed been crucified, he was yet alive in their midst. They believed that although the body was destroyed and gone, a presence previously unknown to them was inspiring and motivating them. Fear became boldness. Confusion became certainty. Their own empowered humanity emerged into the light of full display, and the koinonia family of friends became the embodiment of the spirit of their Lord.

They shared and celebrated a life together, just as they had when Jesus was alive. Others could not help but observe the joy shared by the disciples, just as the disciples could not help but share what had happened to them. And so their numbers grew. Family, friends and neighbors could sense that the new community had something special, and they wanted to share in it.

One by one, the years went by. Memories of Jesus began to fade, new community members needed to be incorporated, and the initial enthusiasm was soon overcome by organizational challenge. Sayings of Jesus began to be collected, as were accounts of his deeds, orally at first, but then written.

New members brought new ideas, some of which were in conflict with one another, and they brought new questions, the answers to which were not obvious. Missionaries travelled the trade routes and small groups of this new Jewish sect arose across the empire. The most famous such missionary was Paul, who in 50 CE wrote his first letter to a congregation in Thessalonica that he had gathered previously. Other letters were sent to groups in Galatia, Corinth, Philippi and Rome. In the rather short 18 years from the crucifixion of Jesus to Paul’s first epistle, the “good news” of the koinonia family of friends had spread far and wide.

As time went on, the story of Jesus and the disciples changed in character. Personal experience gave way to trying to understand those experiential events. The disciples knew who Jesus was, what he did and what he said. The later adherents to the group did not, and in their search for understanding, they began to develop different theologies. Paul had his own ideas, as did the gospels, and they are not always in agreement. Paul had issues with the Jerusalem congregation, under the leadership of Peter and James, brother of Jesus. He also had issues with certain sub-groups in Corinth, for example, making it quite clear that the early church was not monolithic in either form or belief.

Two issues in particular were uniquely thorny: where did Jesus come from, and what did he do? The first question may have been asked by the disciples, but having an answer was not a prerequisite for living with Jesus. They may have wondered if he was sent by God, but they knew him as a man. As for the second question, there was no thought of a sacrificial death. He lived and travelled with them, teaching, uplifting, challenging. And after his death, he in-formed the family of friends as spirit in a way they had never before experienced.

Somewhere along the way, new converts concluded that Jesus was sent by God, and indeed was God, epitomized in the gospel of John as the Word who, in the beginning, was with God, was God, became flesh and dwelt among us.

But whence the idea that Jesus had died for your sins? Did it arise with Paul? Paul has mostly been interpreted via Luther and Calvin: salvation comes by grace through the belief that Jesus died vicariously for your sins. Believe that and be saved. Did Paul believe that? Many scholars today believe not. Since we are on a voyage of assumptions, let us say that Paul did not believe that. When he talks about sacrificial atonement what he means is that the new life of caring and sharing in the koinonia is exemplified in the extreme when one gives one’s life for the sake of another, as Jesus did for those suffering oppression.

The incredible energy and excitement that propelled Paul all over the empire did not originate in “hey, believe Jesus died for your sins and all will be well”. No, what propelled him was his recognition of how humans can live on the planet, a way of love as manifest in the family of disciples created by Jesus and available to everyone. No doubt many in the history of humankind had lived the life exhibited by Jesus and the disciples, but now the flame had been re-kindled, and Paul, like the disciples, was excited.

Alas, the old ways did not easily surrender, and the consequence of that resistance is revealed and illustrated in the New Testament itself. Read the so-called Pastoral epistles, or the book of Revelation. Equality of all, central to Jesus and his early disciples, is replaced by patriarchy in the church of the later first century. Family is replaced by hierarchy and priesthood. Intimacy is replaced by institutional organization. Loving community is replaced by fantastical and horrifying imagery portraying the end of time. What began as the koinonia family of friends became transformed into something quite different. But we today are writing the latest chapter in the story. We need only remind ourselves that what Jesus had in mind- what God has in mind- is as empowering as ever.

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