The Christian message begins with the person of Jesus. He was born a Galilean Jew at a difficult time facing cultural tensions between traditional Jewish life and the values and ideas of the Roman world, and torn between a variety of Jewish sects.
Jesus became a wandering teacher with a reputation for working miracles. He wasn’t the only one, there were many, but his reputation grew and endured. Many of the stories told about him were told long after his life; the endurance of those memories says something about the impact he made. He gathered a team of disciples, like many other rabbis, and they travelled around Judea and Galilee as he taught.
He came into conflict with the authorities, as his radical simplicity challenged their authority. He was also very popular, and they could see that his popularity itself could be a danger to them, even while it protected him.
Eventually, after a demonstration in the Temple which they feared could have become a riot, they arrested him. His trial was a secret and illegal affair; he faced charges which could result in his execution, and such trials should have been held during the day. However, the whole point was to get rid of him. Jewish and Roman authorities colluded, Jesus was sentenced to death, and executed by crucifixion, a horrific death reservedfor seditious offenders. It was designed to warn anyone against threatening those in power. This is what Christians remember on Good Friday.
Jesus’ death and burial should have been the end of the story. However, rumours spread very quickly that he had been raised from the dead, and had been seen by some of his friends. Thats the marvellous story of Easter Sunday. The hope and bedrock of the Christian’s faith. Those frightened into hiding by his death, were speaking fearlessly about him as the one whom God had sent to save the world. Despite the warnings and occasional opposition of the authorities, the movement spread like wildfire across the Mediterranean world and beyond.
Even one of their fiercest opponents was converted to the new faith, Saul of Tarsus becoming the Apostle Paul, a formidable advocate of Jesus as Messiah, the one who fulfilled all the hopes of the ancient Jewish faith, and took it further, to include everyone even non jews in the good news.
From that day to this, the Christian faith has been controversial. Resurrection is so far outside normal experience as to sound utterly implausible: there have been endless attempts to explain it away as hallucinations, dreams, or even lies and conspiracies. However, while all of these alternatives could plausibly explain parts of the story, none of them can account for all of them. The only thing that adequately explains the explosive beginnings of the Jesus movement is that something truly out of the ordinary did happen: that God raised Jesus from the dead, a sign that something very big was happening. It began as a small group, the followers of a Galilean rabbi; it became a rapid movement spreading around the Roman world and beyond; it kept going in all directions, until it has become a major world-wide religion.
The story of that movement is huge, transforming almost beyond recognition as it grew.It began as a Jewish revival, believing Jesus to be the One long-expected, but then as it spread had to translate itself into different concepts which made sense to non-Jews. It began as a movement suspected by Jewish and Roman authorities, often persecuted, but was then adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Becoming official freed the Church from persecution, but gave it power which became a temptation as much as a tool for the work. It spread into Eastern and Western cultures, continually re-translating itself into forms which made sense where it was, but weren’t always understood by those who saw it change. Branches of the same family tree were suspicious of each other, and misunderstanding often became enmity.
In Europe, the Church became part of the fabric of Western society and government. That made it part of the institution, leading to a tension between the Church and the radical reforming message it preached. So there were regular points at which the message led some to break out andgo further than their Church would permit, only to see their revival movement become itself an institution which resisted change.
Luther, Calvin, and the Protestant Reformers set out to renew and reform the medieval Catholic Church, and this led to the Reformed Churches. JohnWesley set out to renew the Church of England, and his movement led to The Methodist Church. The Methodist Societies thought that they would transform the face of the Church of England – they never intended themselves as separatists. And in a way, of course, they did, because the evangelical energy they generated awoke the moribund C of E, if only in reaction. The success of this would open the doors to others, particularly the revived Catholic Church, returning to England after three centuries of prohibition. This in turn would lead to rumblings from Oxford, and the rediscovery of the Church of England’s sacramental origins; an enthusiasm which would transform Walsingham into the kind of place it is today. Sometimes God works in mysterious ways !
The Pentecostal revivals of the early 20th C broke out of the mainstream churches, and by the end of the century had become church movements in their own right. In the last decades of the 20th C, charismatic renewal repeated the story, leading to movements of independent house-churches.
The Ecumenical Movement in the 20th C led to the different denominations talking to each other, finding ways to work with each other, and occasionally joining in new joint churches. There is still disagreement between the denominations, but more and more we are able to work together as friends and family as shown here in Walsingham.
The 21st C has brought its own set of challenges, as traditional forms of religion are left behind by more and more people, and the churches seek new ways to live the Christian faith and attract new disciples. The Church is a very different shape now to when it began. Theology and doctrine have developed over the centuries, as have layers of tradition.
The one constant is that we seek to follow, serve, and proclaim Jesus as the risen Son of God.