“In it’s earliest days, as it does today, conversion to Christianity came through baptism. The new member entered a family of believers that were all hopeful and aware of the same thing.”
(Theology Class, Fordham University)
With a convert’s emergence from below the waters of repentance—after one had shed the old man and put on the new— one also took up a warrant for one’s life. As you emerged free from the shackles of corruption—the wages of sin and death that were once unendingly bound—you essentially then also were despised and rejected both for the faith you held and the way you newly chose to live your life.
To put this into some context: early Christian converts were perfectly aware of the fact that they would be sought-after and tried with various trials, and even—ultimately—be put to death for their faith. We read Paul’s encouragement to the congregation of the letter to the Hebrews in chapter 10 as he writes “But recall those earlier days when … you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution and sometimes being partners with those so treated” (Heb 10: 32-33). We see an identification of Christian persecution as early as the end of the first century!
Entrance into the body of “those who are in Christ”, a beloved phrase by Paul, meant the admission of a new family member whose hope was in the risen Messiah. Each member of this new family was hopeful of one thing; that through their faith in, and practice of, the message of Jesus Christ, they would attain salvation, forgiveness of sins, and perfection here and in the world to come.
We find Christianity emerging at a time when there is a large discrepancy between the rich and the poor, a framework that made it difficult—nearly impossible—for any real economic mobility, and an incredible demand on people for their civic and religious piety to be in line with that of the empire’s. We find ourselves entering a realm where the majority of the population found themselves under the dominance of a culture that was self-seeking, self-indulgent, and utterly, and sometimes purposely, mindless of the ostracized and destitute majority.
The modern viewer is left to realize that the ideals, outlooks, and prospects of a Christian were, and still are, completely counter-cultural. At its core, Christianity (the religion of the bible and of those who decipher it in the first few centuries afterwards) is ascetic, selfless-seeking, and fundamentally rooted in principles that defy those that surrounded Christians before and now.
The first Christians worldviews are absolutely shambled; they enter into a hope that instructs them to be completely opposed to ways of life many of them once lead. They forsake family, set aside personal ambitions, relinquish property and wealth, prestige and recognition, all for the call to live in a way no one—outside of those inspired by God—would have lived. They are instructed to reject the godless, secular, and ruthless world to take up a belief that set them apart.
In the Gospel of Matthew we find Christ preaching a difficult message;
“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (5:44)
In fact, we find that entire section of the gospel message is actually the reworking of common social practices. Christianity was earth shattering in that it said “What they do outside is not for us. We have something different.”
And so the true Christian takes this example. But we find this truly-Christian attitude lacking in our church today. We find Christian culture more symbolic of so-so Rock music and funny gowns, of a shallow-rooted desire for piety mixed with the occasional, and sometimes haphazard, instance for abstinence, than with a radical devotion and organic faithfulness to the life and lessons of Christ Jesus.
Christianity was a revolution of the mind of society. It redefined social constructs, altered individual understandings, and questioned a vogue of commonplace lethargy that infected the populace of a generation. Christ’s message is a revolution of society because it is through his teachings that we see for the first time an internalization of the commands of God, of man, and of self. The true Christian is called to live in this way—“transformed by the renewing of [his] mind” (Romans 12). For it is in this way that we can truly fulfill the call of Christ’s message, which is to be holy. Holy as set-apart; Holy as other; Holy as distinguished from my peers because I have chosen to live my life in a way that for some makes no sense, but for others is the fulfillment of true concern for one’s soul.
Paul cries out to the people of Corinth and says truly that “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1Corr 1:18).
It is this radical understanding of Paul’s, that faith in Christ is foolishness on all ends for those who do not know of the hope with which it resides, that brings our counter-cultural exposition to light. So it goes without saying that Paul understood the radical and counter-cultural notion of Christ’s life and teaching. It is because of this that I believe we are called to a faith that rises beyond all notions of common practice and that defies all notions of how one ought to live in this world.