About 2,000 years ago, the Roman Empire–a military superpower–ruled over most of the world. One of the popular gods of the Roman Empire was Mithra. Mithra’s followers believed that he had been born of a virgin and had ascended to heaven. Another popular religion of the time believed in the god Attis, and the followers of Attis believed that he was born of a virgin and was resurrected.
A succession of emperors called Caesars ruled over the Roman Empire. When Julius Caesar died, he was called the Son of God. It was said that he ascended to the right hand of the gods in heaven.
Then, Caesar Augustus ruled, and he claimed to be sent by gods to rule over the people. One of his slogans was: There is no other name under heaven by which people can be saved than that of Caesar. People would also say: Caesar is Lord.
Virgin birth. Ascension. Resurrection. Son of God. Right hand of God. Heaven. Lord. All of this language sounds familiar, right?
During this time, a group of Jews insisted that their rabbi–a man named Jesus from the Galilee region of Israel–was born of a virgin, was crucified by the Roman Empire, had risen from the dead, and ascended into heaven.
The claims of the first Christians were not unique. There were a few major differences, though.
The movement Jesus started taught people that this way of life had nothing to do with military power, armies, laws, or wealth. The Jesus movement was about serving the people who were being harmed by the Roman Empire. The early Christians believed that the future restoration of the world had nothing to do with leaving this world, but with restoring the world we had already been given. They believed there was a way to live here and now that would begin to reclaim and repair the world.
While this movement was beginning, Caesar was continuing to rule. Caesar would claim cities, villages, and groups as his own by forcing people to submit and worship him as Lord. If people refused, they were crucified. Caesar used a specific term when referring to the cities, villages, and groups that worshiped him as the Son of God and the savior. In Greek, this word is “Ekklisía.” In English, this word is “church.”
The followers of Jesus reclaimed the word “church” as their own, placing them in direct opposition to the ways of the Empire and Caesar.
The teachings of Jesus were a counter-movement to the ways of Rome. Caesar forced people to worship him. Jesus showed love and compassion to even those who denied him.
The people in this movement gathered. They fed the hungry. They shared their suffering. They served each other. They shared the stories of the life of their rabbi, their teacher, their leader–Jesus. They claimed Jesus as Lord, not Caesar.
This is how Christianity was born. This is how the church was born.
Unlike the Roman Empire, the people of the original Christian church did not guilt people into joining their movement. Unlike the political figures of the day, the people of the original Christian church did not preach punishment–be it crucifixion or hell. They did not place the cross next to the flag.
The people of the original Christian church carried themselves differently. They did not give up on the world. They were deeply invested in the current well-being of the earth and humanity. This drew a crowd. This continues to draw a crowd.
I don’t know if Jesus was born of a virgin. I don’t know if Jesus really resurrected from the dead. I don’t know if he ascended into heaven. I don’t always understand what the gospel writers were trying to say.
But I do know who God is when I close my eyes, when I hear God in the silence. I know that there was a man named Jesus, from the Galilee region of Israel, and he lived the way God sounds to me.
I know that the Jesus movement lives on today, with each new generation being born, with each new group that gathers to oppose the violent powers of the world.
And isn’t that resurrection?
And isn’t that church?