December 25, 2016
An Ancient Faith
Some two thousand and sixteen years after the birth of Christ, it’s easy for us to take for granted that Christianity is a fairly old religion. But it wasn’t so easy to produce these historical credentials in the first couple of centuries after Jesus’s birth. In those years, Christianity must have looked like a novelty, a spiritual fad, or a bizarre little cult. Rumors circulated about the secretive gatherings of Christians. Christians were said to worship a recently executed criminal, and the cross—the instrument of his execution. While the rest of the world was being entertained at theaters or amphitheaters—or maybe Christmas Day movie premiers—the Christians were huddled around a strange, meager feast of bread and wine.
One of the most basic criticisms of Christianity was that it was new, centered around the memory of a man who was born and then executed not too long ago. For critics of early Christianity, truth was to be found in traditions that were ancient, not new.
So, over the first few centuries of Christian history, Christians set out to prove something important: that Christian faith was not new, but old. Very, very old. Older than creation itself.
Our gospel this morning is one powerful example of this work. Around the year 90 AD, John the evangelist set out to show that Jesus was not just a baby born ninety years earlier, nor a man executed just sixty years earlier, but “the Word”—or, to use John’s term, the Logos. The idea of the Logos would have been familiar to Greek and Jewish philosophers, even if they didn’t understand it in quite the same way. But the insight is clear: John is saying that Jesus Christ is not a mere human infant, not just a capitally executed criminal, but the incarnation of God’s wisdom and truth that were present with God before creation. Christianity is an ancient faith, not a new one.
About sixty years after John’s gospel, sometime between the years 148 and 161, a man named Justin Martyr also relied on the Logos to show that Christianity was an ancient religion, not a new one. Justin’s opponents apparently claimed that it was “madness” that Christians, as Justin puts it, “give to a crucified man second place after the unchangeable and eternal God.” These opponents also claimed that Christians rejected all people who were born more than one-hundred-and-fifty years ago—before Christ was born.
So Justin set out to prove that Jesus Christ was not just a recently crucified man or a child born 150 years ago, but that he had always been present in history, as the Logos. Here’s what Justin has to say: “We are taught that Christ is the firstborn of God, and we have proclaimed that he is the Logos, in whom every race of people have shared. And those who lived according to the Logos are therefore Christians.”
Justin goes on to claim Greek philosophers like Socrates, and Jewish patriarchs like Abraham and prophets like Elijah, as “Christians,” because they sought and reflected the Logos. They pursued wisdom and truth, and they did what was right, and therefore, these ancient peoples were Christians whether they knew it or not. Christianity is an ancient faith, not a new one.
Today, on Christmas morning, after the nativity stories from the night before, we reflect on the mystery of Jesus Christ as the Logos. This mystery suggests to us that Jesus Christ is incarnate in our midst not to sever history, or to divide peoples, but to help build alliances among all those who seek to know the truth and to do what is right. Justin not only argues that Christianity is an ancient faith, but he gathers into Christian community all the seekers of wisdom and doers of justice from ancient history.
How will we reflect this generosity of Christmas spirit today, and in the coming year? Light, grace, and truth are not the property of Christians alone. The Logos belongs to all who seek and speak the truth.
But truth has been drastically devalued this year. Many people don’t even know what light we can use or trust to find truth, and to know it when we see it. Perhaps this year, we can strive to make greater investments in light, grace, and truth, and to recognize that we share these gifts with all kinds of people. The world needs to know much more light, grace, and truth. Light, grace, and truth are what give us power to become children of God.
Now that it’s 2016, and almost 2017, I think that the Christian faith finally counts as ancient, although early Christians claimed that is always was. The big, flashing insight of John’s gospel is that Christians aren’t just followers of Jesus Christ in his particularity, but seekers of the Logos—the light, the truth. And in this search, we have many companions.
The other stroke of brilliance among these early Christians who sought to prove the antiquity of their faith was this: that we shouldn’t dismiss people too easily as mere children born not too long ago, or as just plain criminals. They may be signs for us of an ancient cry for light, for grace, for truth. Amen.
(Translations quoted above are from After the New Testament, ed. Bart Ehrman)