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When did Christianity Begin?

When did Christianity Begin?

Sunday October 9th.


On December 17th last year a young street vendor in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, in frustrated anger at corruption, unemployment, harassment, and abuse, drenched himself with gasoline and set fire. 17 days later, on the 4th January this year, he died in hospital. When the history books are written, not just in haste for this year’s Christmas market, but in 5, 50, 500 years time will his death be seen as when not just the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution but indeed the Arab Spring, or rather its summer whose nature we can still not yet guess at, will his death be seen as the moment when it began? Or will historians look further back, to other events in the Middle East or elsewhere in the world, to intellectual awakenings, to the coming of mobile phone technology and the internet which broadcast images of that event around the world, or perhaps to the folk memories and past histories of the peoples involved, to which they again aspired?

My title, when did Christianity begin?, was proposed by your Dean, and I must admit to a certain surprise. It was, perhaps slightly with tongue in cheek, that I proposed the reading from Luke with its precision of date and place — but, as if to undo me, that goes on to place not Jesus but John the Baptist, and to reach back centuries before John to Isaiah. The word ‘Christianity’ appears nowhere in the Bible, the topic of this term’s sermons. Even if I were to be a little more generous, the term ‘Christian’ appears but three times, hardly enough to answer such a universalising question. Is this mere semantic quibbling? If I were to ask Nick Clegg when the LibDems began would he start only in the late 1980s, when Liberal Democrats replaced the somewhat unwieldy label ‘Social and Liberal Democrats’; or would he go back beyond that to the union of 1988? or perhaps nod to 1981 when the Gang of Four claimed the title Social Democrats in a heady wave of optimism about political change? Would he dwell longer on 1859, to the loose coalition of Whigs and others, or perhapst appeal finally to the 17th century rise of liberalism, or even further back to English values. What is in a name? Still the point should be made; from time to time I will ask a class whether Paul, or indeed whether Jesus, neither of whom knew the term, was a Christian, and with a sense of determination not to be caught out they invariably answer, ‘no, they were Jews’. So when, then?

Two years ago, some of you may have watched Diarmaid MacCulloch’s very successful mini-blockbuster, the History of Christianity. The book of the film has as its subtitle ‘the first 3000 years’. 3,000? Is this a slight exaggeration in view of having got into the 1st decade of the 3rd millennium, or perhaps a somewhat optimistic statement of confidence that the human race, never mind the Church, will not have torn it self apart within the next 990 years? In fact, making one of those unexpected, somewhat subversive moves that enlighten his narrative, MacCulloch starts with the Greeks and Romans. Subversive, perhaps, but not novel — and no harm in that. Our age worships novelty; I walk past the Apple Store with daily anxiety, lest the announcement of the iPad 3 deliver my iPad 2, and me with it, to the status of a ‘has-been’; no doubt when it is announced, the queues will form on the day of release, just as, down to the precise second, they have for the release of the latest Harry Potter, coordinated throughout the world.

Not so in the world of the early church; there novelty could be regarded with suspicion. What counted was antiquity; who got there first? Whose history dated back the furthest. In the games of cultural superiority, not novelty or being the first to send a person to Mars, brought victory, but having been the first to discover what we all need, writing, music, city life. There were some natural winners: everyone, even the Greeks — the Romans were non-starters in this particular exercise — knew that the wisdom of the ancients was to be found in Egypt. Jewish apologists had only to point out that not just Moses but, indeed, Abraham, had been in Egypt; who did the Egyptians get their wisdom from? .From Moses and Abraham of course who lived long before there was a Greece or Rome. The early Christians were no less slow in wanting to establish their cultural superiority, and so they took the Jewish claims and made them their own – doing this even before there was a New Testament as we know it.

So our story begins with Abraham, as indeed does the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew, and as indeed does Paul who in Galatians and Romans celebrates what it means to live before God by faith, and tells his readers, ‘You are Abraham’s children’. Yet, what our Old Testament reading reminds us, is that the radical new beginning in Abraham in fact was not so new; Abraham did not emerge from nowhere; he, too had a history stretching before him, a history that would eventually take us back to the beginning of Genesis, ‘In the beginning God created’. It is, of course, with that in mind that the 4th Gospel begins its account designed to lead to faith in Jesus Christ, ‘In the beginning was the word’ before it goes on to identify that word with Jesus Christ, the articulation of the divine purpose and self-expression in creation, in history, and in redemption. Those Christian apologists of the second century in fact also made the same argument, and Diarmaid MacCulloch, as I said, no man of mere novelty, justifies his beginning with Greek and Roman speculations about the world with the same passage from John.

There is a vital truth here. Jesus did not come from nowhere, catapulted into the world like an alien from the ether, without history and without obligation. There have been religious movements which have begun, at least in their own mythology, from a totally unprecedented — although how comprehensible? — revelation, or from the discovery of a secret book, perhaps written in a hitherto unknown script now explained to the chosen seer: movements without any anchor in the past. Undoubtedly there were those in the history of early Christianity, and there have been since, who would have liked to understand Jesus in the same terms, and they had a certain appeal. Clearing out the baggage of the past, disowning anything that might seem less than pure to a new generation, not least disposing of that bellicose and unpredictable God. But the downside to such ideas is much greater; as human societies and as human beings our past is part of who we are in the present, and, at least in this life, stubbornly remains so; we cannot live with the demands of total novelty. More seriously, if all that matters is unheralded novelty, what happens when the once new becomes old, when the pure becomes tarnished; might there not need to be yet another new beginning, and another, and another — and indeed Christian history has witnessed time and time again those who thought the ‘real Christianity’ was only now emerging, in their time and place. Tracing our story back through the past to its beginning, despite all its embarrassments and challenges, bears witness to the faithfulness of the one God through those embarrassments and challenges, and bears witness to the conviction that there is a divine purpose which will never be quenched..

That, of course, is not the whole story. Those first followers of Jesus, and their successors, came to recognise that their task was not one of recalling a more golden past, nor of simply reforming while retaining the parameters of the present. The resurrection of Jesus represented for them not the resuscitation of the moribund but a radical in-breaking of new possibilities, a foretaste of a recreated world of being. Jesus’ parables spoke of fresh wine bursting out of the confines of the seasoned, well-worn and tried wineskins, even if he left no instructions for the manufacture of new, eternally durable, wineskins. Writing after writing from the time, in and outside the NT, searches for metaphors; John seizes on that of having to be born all over again; Paul speaks of a new creation. And all this was not just language – as Paul took his message to non-Jews and Jews unlike, seeking to weld them into communities of equals as witnesses to a new vision of being human. Did any one of those moments mark the beginning of ‘Christianity’? They would not have said so. Would there have been a Christianity without any one of those moments? No. Could there have been some other outcome? On that we still ponder. What authorised these new images, these new social patterns? The resurrection of Jesus? Or not just his resurrection but how that capped his life, the stories of his ministry? Well, not just his life, but who he was, expressed through stories of his birth, and beyond his birth to Abraham, or even ‘In the beginning was the word’. And so we go round again.

It is no accident that in due course Christians were to produce, not an extended body of Jewish Scriptures, as they surely could have done, but a New Testament to set alongside the one they now labelled Old. That decision has not always been a felicitous one, and it will be the task of another sermon in this series to acknowledge the challenges it poses, and the dreadful consequences some, even Christians, have drawn. Yet in declaring a ‘New Testament’ they were witnessing not to the irrelevance of the past, for them it continued irrevocably as their past, but they were witnessing to the challenge of the new.

When did Christianity begin? If Dr Hughes had set me that as a supervision essay I could answer with appropriate sophistry; discuss the meaning of ‘when’ and of ‘begin’, and of ‘Christianity’ which I have carefully avoided defining, before making a case for the first century, or the second, or the third, or even the fourth, each equally compelling — and that is no joke: I could indeed. I might even muse on whether there is a beginning without an ending and, with allusion to a post-Christian age, speculate on when that might be, or was. But this is a sermon on the Bible, an ancient text ever reinterpreted to interpret the present. It contains within it continuities and radical discontinuities, and the same is, and always will be, no less true of Christianity, ‘ever old and ever new’.