I have been reading a couple of books by Jim Wallis that have challenged me a great deal. They are The Call to Conversion, 1981 (revised 2005), and On God’s Side, 2013. In my next several blogs, I would like to pass on to you some of the challenges that these books have made to me. While these are not new ideas to me and I have preached many a sermon on them, yet the way that Wallis puts it all together is compelling for me and I hope it will be for my readers.
In The Call to Conversion, Wallis begins with the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7; Luke 6) as a description of the core values that Jesus taught his followers about life in the Kingdom of God that he came to inaugurate. He says that it is “the charter of the new order. It describes the character, priorities, values, and norms of the New Age that Jesus came to inaugurate. The early church took it to be basic teaching and used it to instruct new converts in the faith.” (p.11, Call to Conversion).
In the Sermon on the Mount as with Jesus’ other teachings and actions, Jesus speaks of basic stuff of human existence. He speaks of money, possessions, power, violence, sexuality, faith and the law, security, true and false religion, treatment of neighbors and treatment of enemies. As Wallis says: These are the basic questions that every man and woman must come to terms with and make choices about.” (p. 12, Call to Conversion.)
The Kingdom of God is pictured as a radical reversal of both Jewish and Roman culture during Jesus’ day and also today. For Romans popularity, ambition, aggrandizement, competition, wealth, and violence were all key virtues and goals to strive toward. The Sermon on the Mount turns everything on its head and advocates for just the opposite of Roman and today’s values.
Because early christians strove to follow these teachings and took them to heart, they were viewed by their society as “different” and as a challenge to the power of the status quo. Therefore, as Wallis says,Early Christians “became well known as a caring, sharing, and open community that was especially sensitive to the poor and the outcast. Their love for God, for one another, and for the oppressed was central to their reputation. Their refusal to kill, to recognize racial distinctions, or to bow down before the imperial deities was a matter of public knowledge.” (Call to Conversion, p. 15)
We see that public knowledge in the description of Christians sent to the Emperor Hadrain by Aristides, a Roman official: “They love one another. They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If they have something they give freely to the man who has nothing; if they see a stranger, they take him home, and are happy as though he were a real brother. They don’t consider themselves brothers in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit, in God.”
Early Christians were known in society of their time not just by what they believed but especially by the way they lived. As Wallis says: “The message of the kingdom became more than an idea. A new human society had sprung up, and it looked very much like the new order to which the evangelists pointed. Here love was given daily expression; reconciliation was actually occurring. People were no longer divided into Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. In this community the weak were protected, the stranger welcomed. People were healed, and the poor and dispossessed were cared for and found justice. Everything was shared, joy abounded, and ordinary lives were filled with praise. Something was happening among these Christians that no one could deny. it was very exciting. According to Tertullian (an early christian writer), people looked at the early Christians and exclaimed: “See how they love one another!” (Call to Conversion, p. 17)
I leave you with a challenging question: Can the above be said about our churches today? Do we stand out as Christians in the eyes of our society? That will be the subject of my next blog post!