Christianity in the Western world seems so comfortable now, so tame, so safe. You and I can gather together as Christians on a Sunday morning say our prayers, take part in the Eucharist and go home again without having to worry about anything more than, “Where am I going to park this morning, will I know the hymns, will the sermon have anything to offer me today?” It is almost as if our success is our undoing. Christianity no longer seems strange when compared to the status quo. Christianity is the status quo. For many people there is absolutely no risk in being a Christian, no challenge. Following Christ requires little sacrifice. It’s like the faith has been boiled down and homogenized, sterilized, and sanitized. And worst of all, from my point of view, Christianity has been made quite reasonable.
But this isn’t how it was when those first followers of Jesus began to gather together after the resurrection. They were anything but status quo and their faith was anything but reasonable. To the average Roman citizen these people were crazy, lunatics, out of their minds fringe fanatics, devoted to some dead prophet. Their leader had been put to death as a political troublemaker, nipped in the bud after only three years of his ministry. He had never amassed an army; he didn’t even have that many followers. He left his disciples no fortune, no money by which they could carry on. In fact, these followers of Jesus seemed to attract the rabble and the riffraff. Sure a few wealthy people could be counted amongst their numbers but they were just bizarre enough to believe they could actually share everything in common – how naive, how ridiculous they seemed to everyone around them. They were a bunch of Jews and Greeks, slaves and poor citizens who believed that this man called “Christus” had risen from the dead. But, and here is the fact that makes all the difference, they believed it totally and completely and they lived with this incredible sense of joy and purpose.
Sometimes, I wonder whether we really get it these days. We are so far removed from the folks we read about in Acts this morning that we really have to adjust our thinking to understand what it meant in the first 250 years to call yourself a Christian. It is difficult for us to get our heads around what the Roman world thought of Christians because there are few surviving accounts written by those on the outside looking in. Lucian of Samosata, a Roman writer from the 2nd century, gives us a little glimpse of how strange Christians appeared to the status quo. Christians he said display an absurd generosity and they have a sacrificial concern for other people they don’t even know.1 Later on he writes, “The poor wretches have convinced themselves that they are going to be immortal, they despise death, and even willingly give themselves into custody.”2 Tacitus, also writing in the 2nd century records how Nero blamed Christians for the great fire in Rome. He writes, “Nero fastened the guilt and afflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.”3 Pliny, a Roman governor, wrote to the Emperor Trajan around the year 112 that Christians were nothing more “than a perverse and extravagant superstition.”4
Listen to that language – absurd, poor wretches, abominations, hated class, superstition. To the Romans, if you were a follower of Christ you were at best someone to be pitied. At worst you were someone considered worthy of torture and death. But those believers we read about this morning in Acts didn’t care what the world thought of them. They had been touched, moved, set on fire by the power of the empty tomb. How they lived following Jesus’ death is to me the best proof of the resurrection. They lived with such joy, such purpose and passion. They were willing to love so openly, with that absurd generosity, to risk their very lives just to proclaim the truth – that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that everyone who has faith in him should not perish but have eternal life.
That sort of passion, that sort of Spirit, should be ours too, yours and mine. It should fill this place. It should fill our lives from morning till night. Peter Marty tells a wonderful story about St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in San Francisco. For years St. Anthony’s has served meals to people in need. Over the doorway to its dining room the church has posted a sign bearing the inscription: Caritate Dei. One day a young mechanic, just released from jail and new to St. Anthony’s, entered the door and sat down for a meal. A woman was busy cleaning the adjoining table. “When do we get on our knees and do the chores lady?” he asked. “You don’t,” she replied. “Then when’s the sermon comin’?” he inquired. “Aren’t any,” she said. “How about the lecture on life, huh”? “Not here,” she said. The man was suspicious. “Then what’s the gimmick?” The woman pointed to the inscription over the door. He squinted at the sign. “What’s it mean, lady?” … “Out of love for God,” she said with a smile, and moved on to another table.
The power and the presence of the resurrected Christ brings about that kind of absurd generosity, where we give just to give, where we love just to love with no strings attached, all because Christ is risen. It is the crazy nature of our faith that makes no sense to so many. And while it may feel tame to us on any given Sunday morning – it is anything but tame. The power of the resurrection made King crazy enough to have a dream and to die for it. The power of the resurrection made Mother Teresa crazy enough to think that her work in the slums of Calcutta could ever make a difference. The power of the resurrection made Tutu crazy enough to believe that a Black African could change one of the most repressive governments of all time. And much closer to home, 22 years ago the power of the resurrection made Geraldine Johnson and a handful of people crazy enough to believe that they could create a school for children in need and change the lives of hundreds and hundreds of young people. They have never had much money, they have never had much room, they have never had many resources, but they knew the risen Lord and that made all things possible.
I could wish nothing more for any of us here than that you and I could be crazy Christians – crazy with love, crazy with hope, crazy with joy, because the tomb is empty, we have nothing to fear and everything to live for. Amen.
1. Charles C. Williamson, Acts, Westminster John Knox Press, p. 25.
2. Luke T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, Fortress Press, p. 91.
3. Ibid., p. 89.
4. Ibid., p. 90.