The claims of the earliest Church, from the days of the apostles and into the first centuries, were so outrageous that it was hard for the average Jew or Greek or Roman to take them seriously.
The claims began immediately after the crucifixion of Jesus. A small group of His followers—about 120 in number, hardly enough to show up in the Jerusalem stats—began to claim that Jesus was the Messiah, and that, as Messiah, He was now doing what every Jew expected the Messiah to do—that is, Jesus was now ruling the world.
We Christians, familiar with the Ascension and the dogmas of our theology, can easily miss how perverse this claim seemed to everyone. The Messiah was expected to gather an army, defeat the Romans, overthrow Gentile power throughout the world, and establish Jerusalem as the new capital of the earth and rule from Zion. Jesus had clearly done none of these things. Far from overthrowing the might of Rome, He had been put to death by Roman power, and that in the worst and most humiliating way imaginable. Rome was still in control and Jerusalem was still under the Roman boot. How could any sane Jew say that He was the Messiah? (Spoiler hint: the answer is, “because of His Resurrection”.)
Despite this, the Christians, few in number, despised as heretics and written off as lunatics, continued to assert that Jesus was now ruling the world from the Father’s throne in heaven, and that one day He would return to consummate that reign.
Part and parcel of this new Christian perversity was the Christian assertion that the cross on which Jesus had died was not the instrument of His defeat, but of His victory, and that it was not Him who had been humiliated on it, but the evil principalities and powers of the world (compare Colossians 2:15). It was through His death that death had been trampled down and salvation and new life had come into the world. This assertion was, to say the least, historically counter-intuitive, and the pagans mocked us at every turn for insisting upon it and for worshipping a crucified criminal.
The perversity of our claims was increased by the tininess of our numbers. For a long time now the Church has lived beneath the shadow of the eagle’s wings, living on Constantinian capital (now pretty much used up here in the darkened West). This long history can obscure from our vision how tiny and powerless we actually were for the longest time—and therefore how outrageous our claims seemed to everyone else.
Jews were established and powerful throughout the Roman world. Every large city had its synagogue and the Jews were a wealthy and influential force to be reckoned with. In a militarized Rome, they had exacted an immunity from service in the Roman army, and in a polytheistic world with its Emperor cult they had exacted an exemption from participating in the worship of the Emperor. A long and lamentable history of anti-Semitism and persecution of Jews can sometimes blind us to the fact that in those early days, the shoe of helplessness was on the other foot. In those days the Jews were the powerful ones, and the Christians were the persecuted and hated minority.
This was all the more apparent while the Temple was still standing, with all its wealth, pomp, and prestige. It shone in the sun in all its Herodian splendour, staffed by hundreds of priests, funded by Jews the world over, its altar smoking with sacrifices all the day long. The Temple was the powerful beating heart of Judaism, a potent symbol of the Chosen People now dispersed throughout the world.
It was against this background that the Christians, few in number and without any power, made their extraordinary claims. Despite the fact that in Paul’s day there were only a few dozen Christians in cities like Corinth, the Christians claimed that they were the true Israel, not the Jews, and that the signs of belonging to the Chosen People were no longer circumcision and Sabbath, but baptism and Eucharist.
The disparity of numbers—thousands of Jews with property and influence and only a few dozen Christians without property or influence—made the claim breath-takingly audacious.
More than that, the Christians claimed that their gatherings, their ekklesias, constituted the true Temple where God now dwelt, and that their little ceremony with bread and wine constituted the true sacrifices of that Temple. The Temple in Jerusalem, an architectural world wonder with its hundreds of priests and sacrifices, was only a foreshadowing of what the Christians were now doing. Like I said: counter-intuitive. Surely the reality was the Jerusalem Temple with its many sacrificed animals, and a private ceremony with bread and wine was the imitation and symbol? Nope: the Christians insisted it was the other way around: the Temple was the symbol, and they had the reality.
With Constantine and especially Justinian, all this began to change, and now we cannot easily conceive of Christianity as “a little flock” (compare Luke 12:32), statistically insignificant, without cultural influence, and persecuted. But the times they are a-changin’, and we here in the West are rapidly becoming again what we once were. That does not mean, of course, that here in a liberal democracy we should not protest the insanity of our times or the measures used to persecute us (some of which are more subtle than others in our “cancel culture”). But it does mean that Christendom has fallen, and that the catacombs beckon.
It also means that we need to retain or recover the guts which once characterized us. Like our earliest Christian ancestors, we stand together to defy the world. We insist that Jesus rules the world, that He hates much of what is going on down here, and that He will correct and judge when He returns. We insist that much of what is culturally normative and ascendent is sinful and wrong and eschatologically doomed, and that we will therefore live differently than the world lives.
The world will of course regard us again as perverse and dangerous and will treat us accordingly. Our numbers will flag with our fortunes, and will be much reduced. The little flock will again begin to look little. But that’s okay. We have been here before, and we know how to do this. The time is upon us for guts and contentment with what the world will regard as perversity. (Fr. Lawrence Farley)