I have spoken before about how Christians believe that the Lord Jesus is the Messiah foreseen by the Israelite prophets. Remember, the Messiah is a person of extraordinary power whom God will reveal as the Savior of the Israelites, indeed, of the whole world. The Messiah will set right the terrifying wrongs that beset the Israelites, particularly the horrifying events of 587 BC, when the armies of Babylonians destroyed everything the Israelites had believed to be gifts from God- their king, their land and their temple. God would act to set things right and God’s setting things right would be revealed in the Messiah.
“Signs” of the Messiah were identified by the prophets, and through these signs, the Israelites believed that they would know that the Messiah had come.
The Gospels are essentially about the “signs” of the Messiah and how he fulfills them. I know the tendency is to think that the Gospels are stories about “life lessons”, but what they really consist of are eyewitness accounts concerning signs that indicated that the Lord Jesus is the Messiah foreseen by the prophets.
Now, most Israelites during the first century AD had the capacity to understand what the Messiah would mean for the Israelites, but what did the Messiah mean for the rest of the world? Some believed it meant that the Israelites would become the rulers of everyone on the planet and those nations that had opposed the Israelites, or had done terrible things to them, (like the Babylonians) would be severely punished. In this construal, the Messiah would reward the Israelites by making them lords over everyone else.
Christ revealed something very different: he hadn’t come as Messiah so that the Israelites could become lords over everyone else (and become just as bad as the nations that tried to lord it over them). Christ the Messiah revealed that how one became and lived like an Israelite would be transformed, and in this transformation, everyone, not just the physical descendents of Abraham, would have to opportunity to share a relationship with the God of the Israelites- the God who revealed himself in the world as the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
In other words, in Christ, everyone would have an opportunity to become part of God’s chosen people, everyone would have the chance to participate in the relationship that the Israelites have with God. God in Christ had opened up this opportunity for the world. This is what it meant for the Lord Jesus to be the Messiah for the world.
And this revelation was a source of contention and controversy, not just for Israelites, but for the early Christians as well.
This is what yesterday’s and today’s readings from Acts of the Apostles have been about- the way in which the early Christians struggled with the transformation of Israel into the Church, a Church in which not only the Israelites, but all the nations, would be gathered into a relationship with God in Christ.
All this likely seems far from us and from our experiences, so much so that many Christians don’t think much at all about how the Lord Jesus is the Messiah or what it means to believe that this is true. The Church today has its own controversies to contend with and this one isn’t one of them.
But why did so many of the early Christians oppose the idea that all the nations would be gathered into a relationship with the God of Israel?
For some the issue was procedural (what would these new Israelites have to do once they were “in”?), and for others the issue was a matter of revered customs that seemed threatened, and for others still it was an issue of honoring the memory of ancestors would had suffered terribly at the hands of people who would now stand by their side at worship and share meals with them at table.
Others likely just didn’t like change and having to relate to someone who doesn’t speak your language or share common experiences means that you have to change a lot.
It might have also been that some folks believed what they had received from the Lord Jesus kind of belonged exclusively to them, and they feared sharing that relationship with others meant others would get more and they would have to settle for less.
In other words, though the Church right now might not seem to struggle all that much with what it means to believe that the Lord Jesus is the Messiah, we are still beset with many of the attitudes that afflicted the early Christians.
It is not easy to be a Christian, and this is true not just because the Lord Jesus insists on a way of life that goes against what the world tends think is important or even just. (For example, the world tells us that wealth, pleasure, power and honors will make us happy, while the Christian way of life says you will be happy inasmuch as you give up these kinds of things. The world tells us to emulate the greatness of politicians, celebrities and financiers, while the Christian way of life celebrates the saints).
The way of life that the Lord Jesus is a way that insists that guarantees that Christians will find themselves moving against cultural mainstreams. Christians are, like Christ, signs of contradiction, not signs of accommodation. Christians will always be different.
The Christian way of life also insists that we open ourselves of offering our friendship to people we don’t know; being generous to people who can’t pay us back; speaking with people who disagree with us; forgiving people who have wronged us; telling a culture truths it doesn’t want to hear; worshipping with total strangers; and sharing our way of life with people who are very different, if not strange.
In all this we are accepting that the Lord Jesus is the Messiah who offers all people an opportunity to know him, to love him and serve him. None of this is easy, and many Christians, indeed many parishes, finding this too difficult, close themselves off, and become more like clubs for a select few, rather than the gathering of the nations into communion with God in Christ.
Parishes becoming clubs is what Pope Francis means when he warns against a “self-referential” Church. It is what happens when Christians prioritize things like ideology and ethnicity as the main drivers of a parish’s ethos, rather than introducing people to Christ and helping each other to love and serve him.
Considering all this, it may just be that we are not as far as we might think from the very same controversies that confounded and confused the earliest Christians.
And we might think more deeply about our faith in the Lord Jesus as the Messiah who isn’t just our Messiah, but the Messiah of the world…