How do religions begin in the first place? Not by clever theologians producing lists of doctrines for the faithful to believe, nor by moralists producing codes of ethical behaviour. Religions begin with experiences which are then reflected on, interpreted and shared with others. That’s how, for example, a great piece of music, work of art or beautiful landscape can stir in us thoughts and feelings which take us from the experience to considering the creative spirit lying behind it.
In the case of the Christian faith, it’s the impact of one particular human life which causes people to reflect and ponder, and then to change the way people think about themselves, about one another and about the world in which they are set. Christianity began when a few people began to reflect on their experience of being with Jesus, day in, day out. They knew him as a fellow Jew, with a recognisable personality. They saw that he taught in a way which invited people to draw their own conclusions, by asking them questions and not providing easy answers.
As they spent more time with him, they began to see that he had an especially close relationship with God. They saw him perform healings, but then there were plenty of healers around, and Jesus was not unique in that regard. His followers continued to see him as a man, a human being like them.
They saw him as a man of God, one who was undoubtedly doing God’s work. Jesus saw himself in the same way. He called himself not ‘Messiah’ but ‘Son of Man’ – an ambiguous title which suggested others might also have a share in whatever he was doing, in his relationship with the God he dared to call ‘Father’. And as his followers reflected on the experience of being with Jesus, they found that their relationship to God was becoming more and more closely aligned with their relationship to him. Without ever losing sight of the everyday humanity of Jesus, they were gradually drawn to make the connection between this man and the God they had been brought up to worship. They had, thanks to this man, a new image for God. And the more they pondered, the more they realised that whenever in the future they talked about God, they could not do so without also thinking and speaking of Jesus.
Much of their reflecting took place after this man’s appalling death, which should have destroyed all their ideas about God. After all, Jesus on the cross remained a human being – one who, in their eyes, was dying for his beliefs and his loyalty to God. What persuaded them to continue to make the equation between Jesus and God – and to make it with an even greater fervour and conviction – was a new set of experiences. They experienced, after Jesus had died, that same human being who was now closer to them than ever before, more alive than ever before. The earliest letters in what became our New Testament show the first Christians trying to work out the implications of what they had experienced, to interpret it and begin to share it with others. And gradually, as Christian faith spread, it was this same engagement with one human being and the events surrounding him which came to determine the beginnings of the Christian Church that we know today.
No-one becomes a Christian – then or now – without going through a similar process of reflection on the man Jesus and his relationship with God; without working through what that comes to mean for us and how we live; and hopefully without wanting others to share in what we have discovered. These few weeks of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus are when we need to be at our most attentive in our reflecting. They provide a crash-course for us, to help us deepen and renew our faith. For the early Christians this was a lifetime’s work. It is no less so for us. Spending time over these next few weeks pondering these things will bring its own rich reward for our faith.