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Christian history, duty and ethics come together in Jesus

Cable television is full of programs that purport to discuss serious research on things like the Apocalypse or whether or not God exists. I have grown tired of them; one thing that I find annoying is that, if you watch the closing titles carefully, you can see that some of the end-of-the-world programs come from before the big predicted date of the Apocalypse arrived. Tension built up to a certain extent until December of 2012, and then that day passed without the event, leaving the Apocalypse still a coming attraction. So why are the cable networks still showing the programs--they are intellectually dishonest, if nothing else. But the "investigations" into whether God's existence can be proved are even more of a waste of time.

We cannot prove that God exists; that is why believers are called "people of faith." No one has proved anything either way, which is why there are atheists as well as theists in the world. The implications of this are worth considering. Whether or not a certain physical phenomenon produced a celestial event in a given year does not prove that a Star of Bethlehem appeared to herald Jesus' birth, or that there was a rain of fire over Sodom and Gomorrah.

I say that the Christian faith has nothing to do with whether Moses "really" parted the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aqaba or the sea of Reeds. It has nothing whatever to do with a Virgin Birth or whether Jesus was born in Jerusalem, Bethlehem or Nazareth. In the earliest Christian writings, St. Paul never does refer to a virgin birth; he refers to Jesus as "born of a woman, born under the Law." Although these two ideas are very important, for now it is pretty clear that Paul never heard of the Virgin Birth, and may not have considered it relevant to his preaching.

What, then, has Christianity to do with? Let's look at its basic doctrine, which is formally known as the Atonement. This is the belief that somehow, the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth changed humanity's relationship to God. And what is Jesus remembered for? He is remembered for his Sermon on the Mount, for one thing, and for some lesser teachings such as his Parables. He is remembered for his Last Supper, in which something transformative took place at a Jewish Sabbath meal around Passover. He is remembered for the High Priestly Prayer that his disciples overheard just before he was arrested, and for some alleged miracles of healing and feeding.

Jesus is also remembered because in some way (another thing we do not understand) his friends reported that he had survived the terrible death that he died on the cross. This is so radical that there are many people who try to explain it away with the idea that he actually did not die in the first place.

It was Jesus' personality that made such an impact on his followers that they began to live different lives--different from what they had been before they knew him, and eventually lives that were separated out of Judaism even though they were what we would call Ultra-Orthodox today. St. Peter had so many problems dealing with Pagan converts and their "unclean" habits that the missionary duties were divided between him and Paul, with Paul ministering to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews.

Back there, one person who testifies to the life and death of Jesus was his younger brother, St. James, who was head of the Church there until he died at a young age, killed as a result of his activities. You can read his stunning Epistle in the New Testament.

But still, we as believers are free to believe what we want to believe--and we do. Everyone believes exactly what s/he wants to: you can see angry people in judgmental churches and fearful people flocking to dictatorial preachers who speak in absolutes. Critical thinkers will go in for discussion and study groups; compassionate people will be found in the food pantries such as the ones that the Episcopal Church and others operate in Tucson. I have donated to the pantry of the Episcopal Church of St. Michael and All Angels.

So nobody is going to pick you up on a Sunday morning and escort you to church if you don't want to go--not after you become an adult, anyway. Unwilling worshipers who are dominated by controlling preachers or spouses may endure it until they are driven to the breaking point--which is coming more and more to people, as evidenced by the decline in attendance across the board in all denominations.

But in order to understand Jesus' impact on his first followers, you hark back to his remark that every jot and tittle of the Law must be observed. It turns out, though, that we do not know exactly what "Law" he was referring to in his sermon. The obvious assumption would be that he spoke of what Jews call "The Law" that goes with "The Prophets" in their Scripture. But he may have been referring to the new Law, which is to love God with all your heart, mind and strength.

Why don't we know? Well, for one thing we have just the statement itself in the Scripture that we have left, and we do not have the originals of the Gospels to tell us. What we have are copies many times over. The fact is that what Jesus preached was in contradiction to laws set down in the Book of Leviticus, and there is no getting around that. Paul's letters confirm this. They tell us what was being preached in the early Church, before it was contaminated with Greek philosophy around the time of the Council of Nicaea. You have to look at this as a timeline to understand it.

Centuries before Jesus was born there was a concept of the Law as hundreds of little laws, put together to keep the Jewish people united as a religious and cultural community in the middle of many other groups that threatened to overwhelm them. Over time, Jews actually acquired status in Late Antiquity because of their relatively-civilized beliefs and practices; conversion to Judaism was not uncommon in the Roman Empire.

But Jesus came along and contradicted that bundle of precepts that were collectively called The Law, even though he affirmed his basic Jewish beliefs--in fact, there is no evidence that Jesus ever considered any other faith than his orthodoxy. What he did do to contradict Leviticus was to teach that it was the spirit rather than the letters of the many sub-laws that was important:

"Jesus called the crowd to him and said, 'Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.

"Then the disciples came to him and asked, 'Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?' He replied, 'Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into the ditch.'

"Peter said, 'Explain the parable to us.'

“'Are you still so dull?' Jesus asked them. 'Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—-murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.'” [Matthew 15:10-20]

As we find in Scripture, Peter could not wrap his mind around this. But Paul could and he took that idea and ran with it:

"But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.

"For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise."

This is our heritage from Judaism: the spirit of the Law, the rejection of hypocrisy. We are charged to do the right thing, as we know it in our hearts, as the Jews did in their best moments of community with God.