Religious disputes are the worst, aren’t they? You see it on a small scale when churches split. There are anecdotal tales among Baptists about churches splitting over a vote on the color of the new carpet, on worship styles and music in the church. I saw a story about a church in another denomination where they split because the people in that church wanted a “freer worship experience.” As I looked a little more closely, one of the commentators talked about people wanting to clap in a church where that wasn’t normally done. When a church gets into a dispute, it causes all kinds of tension and anxiety because the people who are right really don’t want to be controlled by the people who are wrong. Who’s in the right, you may ask? That’s part of the problem.
As the early church grew it began to spread out and reach more people, including Gentiles. At first the early Christians had some issues with it, but instead of trying to put off the dispute on this issue, they met it head on, but they still had to deal with a bigger problem looming in the background: the Jews who saw people following Jesus as a threat to Judaism. The Jews in Jerusalem fought against the followers of Jesus with every weapon at their disposal. They rejoiced in the killing of James, the brother of John. They had a group that vowed to eat or drink nothing until Paul was killed, hoping to ambush him and kill him when he was in Roman custody. They failed, but brought a case before Festus who described his dilemma to King Agrippa like this: “Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive.” (Acts 25:19)
Festus had a dilemma because Paul, taking advantage of his Roman citizenship, appealed to Caesar, hoping to have his case heard in Rome, rather than Jerusalem. Call it an early request to change the venue because he knew that the jury would be stacked against him in the Jewish capital. Festus had been expecting some terrible crime for this prisoner that the Jews sought to execute, instead what he found himself in was the middle of a religious dispute. In the last half of the sentence, he described the trouble that the world has with Christians – we are about “a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive.” The resurrection was scandalous for Jews back then, it still is today. It flies in the face of science. It is an affront to the beliefs of other religions. We follow a dead man named Jesus whom we claim is still alive. He walked the earth 2000 years ago, He was crucified, and He rose from the dead. He still lives today. That belief is scandalous and incredible. Yet that is the core belief of Christianity.
We also believe that the risen Jesus lives in us through the Holy Spirit who empowers all believers. We believe that when we put our trust in this outrageous claim that God establishes a relationship with us. We are forgiven. We become united with each other and with those saints who have gone before us. We believe, get this, that our religious commitment is the exclusive way to approach and fellowship with God. At the same time, we believe that the opportunity for faith is available for anyone. We believe that God doesn’t care about your background, your current sin pattern, or anything else you’ve done: He will accept anyone who turns to Him through Jesus Christ and grant forgiveness for the past, and grace to overcome the power of sin in the present. We aren’t perfect, see paragraph on church splits, but we are forgiven, and when we do it right, the fellowship we share is beyond human understanding.
Oh Lord, how do we tell people the scandalous truth of the gospel? How do we explain that You, God the Son, walked on earth, died for our sins, and rose again, to a skeptical world? Give us the strength to do that. Give us the ability to love other followers of Christ and show Your mercy to all.