“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert!” Mark 13:32
In school days, we were regularly treated to sermons on the need to repent or burn in Hell. Sometimes there would be tracts explaining what would befall those who did not believe as the writer did; on one occasion, there were even comic books warning that we were in the Last Times and setting out in detail what was going to happen. There was much emphasis on the book of Daniel and the book of Revelation and claims that when the EEC, as the European Union then was, reached ten members, a prophecy would be fulfilled and the End would come. In 1981 Greece joined, to make the number ten, and nothing happened.
What undermined much of what was preached was their exhortation to read the Bible for ourselves. Even to a non-believer, like myself in those days, it was apparent that they were so selective in the verses they chose, that their claims could not be taken seriously. If you read only the passages that suit you, then you can claim almost anything. One classmate used to cite Genesis Chapter 6:4 as evidence of aliens having invaded the Earth. Troublingly, he may well have believed it himself.
It was more than just the eccentric use of Bible verses that was a problem; they would present Christianity in such a way that Jesus disappeared completely. There was no sense of the man from Nazareth in their harangues about being saved.
Jesus said, ‘”Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory”. The words of Mark Chapter 13 would have been seized upon by those who preached at us. Yet, Jesus warns against such speculations a few lines later, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert!”
Recoiling from the extremes of Protestant fundamentalism, there is always the danger of swinging to the other extreme; to abandon all belief, to discount anything in the Gospel story that smacks of the supernatural, to say anything that is inexplicable didn’t happen because it doesn’t fit with our knowledge of the world. “Be on guard! Be alert!” applies as much to those who would dismiss everything as to those who would claim to believe everything.
What happens when, in reacting against fundamentalism, we go to the other extreme?
Discount the divinity of Jesus, as some church people do, and what are you left with? A deluded teacher who told some nice stories? Certainly not much more. Why not be honest and describe oneself as an atheist, or an agnostic, rather than claiming to be Christian while rubbishing everything taught through the centuries?
“Be on guard! Be alert!” says Jesus to his followers. Those followers are not the Jewish zealots, the fundamentalists who believed that God would conform to their ideas; but nor are they a group of liberals who say it doesn’t matter what one believes. They are drawn from the ranks of ordinary people, the religious and the irreligious.
Isn’t it odd, that if some of our contemporary views are right, the opponents of the early Church didn’t say the Christian stuff was all nonsense? Isn’t it odd that they didn’t find witnesses to contradict all the claims? Isn’t it odd that they didn’t simply produce a body?
Isn’t it odd, if they are right, that Peter became the leader of the Jesus movement? Look at what happens when the Christian movement begins – the leader is not the one most people would have chosen. Peter was a big, coarse man, not the most obvious candidate to lead a religious movement in the learned and cosmopolitan environment of Jerusalem. There is no trace in the Gospels that he was a man of great subtlety or was a brilliant intellectual. Peter is not the man who would have been chosen by most recruitment agencies, but he is the man who announces that Jesus is risen from the dead. Isn’t it odd that Peter would die for something that he had made up, for that is what is being claimed?
And what about James? James, the brother of the Jesus appears not only in Scripture but in the writings of the Jewish historian, Josephus. Josephus lived from 38-100 A.D. and regarded Christianity with contempt, but here is how his book Antiquities records James, Ananus, the high priest, ‘assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others. And when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned’.
James had been leader of the church in Jerusalem, coming to prominence as early as AD 36, he died in AD 62. The Christian Gospels show James as critical towards his brother. James was outside of Jesus’ circle of friends, he was known to be hostile to what Jesus was teaching, yet something happens which completely turns him around. Would James have changed the way he did if the claims about Jesus were not true?
What about Saul of Tarsus? A very serious, very devout Jew, he appears in the history of the church as the one who persecutes Christians. He is sent to put down the Christian movement, to wipe it out. He goes to Damascus on a mission to stop the Christians and he experiences a sudden change of heart. How can we explain his behaviour, except in terms of a very deep and very intense religious experience? Something happened to this opponent of Christ that turned him into the foremost supporter.
Perhaps the liberal response would be to dismiss all of them, but why then claim to believe anything? If the Christian story had nothing supernatural, nothing inexplicable, it would have been discredited within a few years and would have gone the way of the false messiahs against whom Jesus warns.
“Be on guard! Be alert!” and we need to guard against a right-wing who seize upon particular Bible texts and ignore others, and a left-wing that throws everything aside.
Ultimately, our faith rests not upon any theological tradition, but upon Jesus himself. Our faith is about a person, not about a religion. Do we believe him? Do we believe in him?
“Be on guard! Be alert!”