Alfie Evans was a British citizen who died last Saturday, April 28, at just under two years of age, after an extended period of treatment for a neurological condition afflicting his brain. What do the events of his brief life tell us about the world we live in and how Christians should engage it?
Three hundred years before Christianity was a religion, Jesus taught his disciples to walk in “the Way.” Alongside the simple term “students,” his earliest followers most common self-description was "the Way.” But what's that?
Categories can help us narrow in on the target. When asked by their Greco-Roman contemporaries to plug themselves into an existing category, early Christians had only one answer.
“Although we gather to worship, we are not a religion – much less a mere superstition.” (Superstition was the derisive term the Romans’ used to designate various religions of foreign extraction.)
“Although we provide, from our own pocket, decent burials for our members and others, we are not a burial society.”
“Though we are called Christians, and this follows the linguistic form for naming a political party (like Caesarians for those of Caesar’s party), we are not a political group.”
“Nor are we a guild – indeed we welcome people from every trade and every stratum of society.”
If you were to press this person, the Jesus follower would eventually offer a category. According to the early Christians, only one category comes near to working. “We are a philosophy. We follow the Way – the philosophy of Jesus.”
This self-categorization is full of significance. “If you want to understand our life and teachings,” the early Christians said, “you must compare us to your schools of philosophy.” Thus, they asked their neighbors and critics to form a judgment with one eye fixed on Christian behavior and the other eye fixed on the life and teachings of the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Cynics and the Academy, new and old.
May I ask you to take this testimony seriously?
Like most congregations, the church that I attend has our Sunday hymns projected onto the screen at the front of the building. This has been very helpful for several members who struggle with eyesight problems. But unlike some congregations, we’ve kept our hymnals in the pew as well. I always like to hold the hymnal in my hand and sing along that way—usually because the projected songs don’t have shape notes, which is the only way I can read music, but also so I can reflect on the words of the songs we’re singing.
On a Sunday morning a couple of weeks ago I took the hymnal from the back of the pew in front of me in preparation for the opening of our corporate worship. Like always, I opened the hymnal to the correct song number, but something made me flip to the front of the book. There I found a memorial plate to a member of our church who had gone to be with his Lord many years before. My mind was flooded with memories of the man as I read the words, “This hymnal is given to Holland Street Church of Christ in loving memory of…” He was a good man, a good husband and father and grandfather, and he had lost his battle with heart disease suddenly. My brother, our minister, the worship leader/youth and family minister, and I stood around his hospital bed and sang hymns over him from these very hymnbooks as he passed from this life. I read the plate again and tears filled my eyes.
I was recently intrigued by a student who shared with me his primary reason for coming to study at Austin Graduate School of Theology. While heavily involved in prison ministry, he found himself on the receiving end of questions that he had a hard time answering. And these inquisitive prisoners, who had quite a bit of free time on their hands for reading and contemplating, asked some tough questions. The prison minister admitted that he was getting tired of saying, “I’ll get back with you on that one,” and he sensed a little frustration from the prisoners who also noticed this continuing refrain. He acknowledged that he needed to be better equipped if he was going to benefit these men. But who is there to answer the minister’s questions?
What is the Chronicler up to as a writer? He quotes Bible passages, expands them homiletically, he omits sections not of interest to him, and he interprets them according to his approach as a theological preacher in the post-exilic era. Not unlike what we do! The Chronicler takes the Bible and ancient historical documents, and he interprets them for the discouraged community of believers in the Persian Empire.