The Local Church of the Future

(A dialogue with the Fourth R, The Jesus Scholar’s Quarterly)

I read the Quarterly from the Westar Institute, the home of the Jesus Scholars, from cover to cover almost as soon as it arrives. Some articles I find dull, but I read them anyway, looking for and often finding some small gem to carry away. Some I read with interest as new understandings of Christianity and Jesus are forged, another link added in a chain that leads to the anchor of deeper truth. And some I get so involved that my mind buzzes with ideas and I no longer know what it is I have read, or what it is I have thought.

The July/August 2016 Edition has an editorial, “Time to Re-mythologize Jesus?” by Gordon Raynal and an article “How Christianity Became the Religion of the Roman Empire” by James Veitch that has thus confused and excited me. I will not untangle the mess, but allow me to present it as clearly as possible, for the mess signals a great possibility, and that possibility is the Local Church of the Future.

This begins with Jesus. The editorial makes the case that now that we have demythologized Jesus it is time to re-mythologize him. Interesting.

The old mythology was Jesus as bodily resurrected conquering death, and saving our souls for eternal live.. The research, or at least the researchers, now say that the resurrection was not an experience that Jesus had but that his followers had. After his death Jesus now lived in their awareness as if he had gone to the next room rather than to the next world. He was still the heart and soul of the movement. (They knew that their sightings of him were visions not physical sightings.)

I greatly prefer this perspective. It does not call for an unlikely leap of faith. Does it correctly understand the belief of the early church? Hmmmm? Let’s see what they are saying a decade from now.

As to the re-mythologizing Jesus. That has been going on for some time. Jesus, the resurrected savior who died on a cross for our sins is gone and replaced with Jesus the revolutionary who died on a cross because he continually challenged authority, gathered crowds of followers, and was a squeaky wheel in the machinery of the empire, and therefore eradicated. His movement in various degrees of adaptation to new surroundings and leadership lived on after him.

I am surprised that the Fourth R editor did not notice this re-mythologizing already taking place. Much of this thinking is being described in his magazine and in Polebridge press, the publishing house of the Jesus scholar movement.

However I think they have the re-mythologizing wrong! (Contact your friends, you are getting the truth here and ahead of everyone else.) They are correct about what he did and how it was received, but not about why he did it.

A revolutionary is revolting, and inspiring others to revolt. I think, in a different culture, Jesus would not have had as much to push against and Jesus would be described as an awakened person. Awakened people do what they do because it is the right and natural (to them) thing to do. Their actions are true because they see the world in truth. People who do not see the world in truth, see the awakened person as a problem, and when these blind people are running the show, awakened people risk being dead because they are seen as revolutionaries.

Jesus got born in the wrong spot. The Jews were a rebellious lot in an oppressive empire. Gathering a crowd was a suspicious act. Being idolized was a threat to authority. Plenty of nice Jewish boys carried daggers in case they ran into a Roman soldier to vent their rage on.

The Buddha was awakened but not much of a problem to the local authorities. (He could have made a mess if he had decided to take on the caste system but he preferred sitting around in gardens meditating, teaching others to avoid suffering by giving up the habit of clinging. A worthy task but one that worries not about justice.) He risked little in an almost risk free situation. If the establishment had seen anything to lose, things could have been different. The Buddha would have been seen as a revolutionary. He would not have died of old age.

We have a new Jesus available to the Christian church, one that is compatible with science, or for that matter compatible with common sense. What about the church? The local church will, if it hopes to survive and be of use, will go back to what it was in the second through fifth centuries. That is not what you and I thought it was.

Some years ago I was quite annoyed to learn that much of the early church’s growth occurred not that the newly baptized wanted their souls saved, but because they needed social services. The empire was a dog eat dog place. If you were up, it was terrific. If you were down, it was lousy. So even the rich were very nervous about their future. Slip and you crash; there was no safety net.

Except for those Jews!

There they were in the great diaspora after the destruction of the temple in small clusters praying together, eating together, taking care of each other. They even liked each other. A loving place of safety in a cold, cold world.

Oh, to be a Jew!

You could almost be a Jew. You could have the status of “God Fearer.” The names of the God Fearers are carved in the membership lists on the synagogue walls. (How do we know who is a God Fearer and who a Jew? It is like finding the name “O’Reilly” listed among the communicants at a Polish church.) Many of them substantial contributors to the financial well being of the community. But not Jews really.

Then, a new kind of synagogue arrives. The first Local Christian Churches. You could join, not as an outlier, but as a bona fide member. Not with new customs, literature, restrictions but just a Roman Citizen joined with other Roman Citizens. Floods of gentiles entered what the founders thought was going to be at its most divisive another branch of Judaism but now was becoming a major religion in itself.

This surge was greatly aided by Constantine who could see the merits of embracing this rapidly growing movement, canonizing it as the Empire’s church, and then using it for his own Empire unifying and pacifying purposes.

The local church of the future will become similar to the emerging church immediately before and after Constantine, not because it is planned and created but because today’s circumstances demand it be shaped as it will be shaped. The local church will have liturgy but that is not its reason for being. It will have doctrines but most of them will be kept quietly in the files. It will have Jesus, but not more than a token Resurrected Jesus. It is likely that the revolutionary Jesus now in vogue will soon be replaced with the awakened Jesus, the deeply good human being. In imitation of the loving message of that Jesus, people will be cared for, heart to heart, and when needed food to mouth, bandage to wound, sympathy to pain. The church will be a home in a cold, cold world.

The distinguishing characteristic of the parishioner in the early centuries according to the Fourth R, is that they imitate Jesus by always in every action “keeping God in mind. “ (Those of us in the more Spirit-centered religions might improve on this a bit by saying they imitate Jesus by always being aware of the Spirit of God working in their hearts. Jesus scholars tend to be heady. They are scholars.) I don’t know if I see this spirit led membership coming in the local church of the future and I think that without it the whole thing pretty much empty. But there is still room for hope on this account. Sometimes I think I see the seeds and am confident, other times I wonder.

Not a bad dream, eh? Spirit grounded people imitating Jesus. A compassionate and caring community. Liturgy supportive but not central. Doctrine pretty much on the shelf. In such a world the Resurrection of Jesus becomes not a matter for savage debate with desperate consequences for life happiness, but something to discuss when there is nothing else to do. Is this not a pleasant picture?

Perhaps you will say, “Why do you call this a dream? Why a picture? What is this scholarly prognostication of things to come? What you have written describes my local church now!” And I will say, “Shhhhh. Don’t tell anyone; they are not ready to know.” Heck, I am not sure I am ready to know. Much of my learning will become obsolete.

God once said back there somewhere in the Jewish scriptures, “See what I am about to do! I am doing it now.”

(Would you like to get your mind buzzing on these topics? Go to www.westarinstitute.org )