In the book of Acts, Luke says that Paul, who then was “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” went into Damascus looking for those “who belonged to the Way” (Acts 9:1-2). This is how the first Christians were known: They were “disciples” of Jesus committed to his “way” of life, the way of God’s kingdom that Jesus himself embodied (Luke 17:20-21).
The early Christians understood that to be a disciple of Jesus meant commitment to a process of learning how to walk in the way of Jesus, a way of simplicity of life, humility, inclusivity, forgiveness, compassion and surrender to a greater good – the kingdom of God.
Do you realize that there are many versions of Christianity today that hardly resemble this anymore? They have made doctrinal and creedal conformity central to their faith – some would even denounce as false teachers anyone who would preach or teach a different version than their own – and have put most of the emphasis on the afterlife.
I remember in my youth being part of a revival effort, wearing a button that had a picture of a hand and finger pointing upward with the caption, “Jesus is the way.” But if you had asked me then what that meant, I would have said either of two things. I would have told you that Jesus is the way to heaven if we will only accept him as our personal Savior, or I would have said that Jesus is the way to a happy and meaningful life (meaning a self-fulfilling life).
I had no idea then what I know now about the actual way of Jesus in the world – his commitment to the poor and marginalized, his insistence on nonviolence, his charge to love our enemies, his focus on forgiveness, his readiness to challenge the injustice of the political and religious powers that be and so on.
No one ever told me. We have skewed the faith. We’ve told people to believe in Jesus and then we’ve given them doctrines, dogmas and creeds, incorporating them into church systems that have been more about control, management and growing the institution than they have been about living the life of Jesus in the world. But then, we didn’t know any better either. No one ever told us. We were only passing on the Christian faith as we had been taught.
I am hopeful, though, because it seems to me that we are starting to witness in Western Christianity a growing emergence (this emergence has been happening for some time in other places, like the global South) of the faith “of” Jesus. There seems to be a slowly expanding minority of Christians who are taking seriously Jesus’ vision of a transformed world, who are attempting to put into practice the attitudes and actions, the life and vision of Jesus. Time will tell what impact this will have.
In the days ahead, if we Christians and our churches are to have any credibility and authenticity with spiritual seekers who are peace-loving, clear-thinking and who care about creation, equality and issues of justice for the poor and marginalized, then it will be to the extent that we actually pursue and practice the “way” of Jesus.
I am hopeful that as a species created to bear the image of God that in the future we will more visibly and clearly reflect that image. I am hopeful that we are evolving past the days of the Crusades, Inquisitions, witch hunts and heresy trials. Christians can be a major force for good on this planet if we can move past exclusive, belief-centered, condemnatory Christianity and embrace a more grace-filled, inclusive vision of the cosmic Christ who is ever present in the world and who resides with and in each person (John 1:9).