I took this picture on our trip to Ephesus a few years ago. Since then it has made the regular rotation for my desktop image, I’ve even talked about on this blog before. I’ve found myself somewhat haunted by it. And here’s why.
This is an underground first or second century symbol. It stands for Ixthus Christos Theos (all the first letters of this phrase in Greek make this symbol. The phrase means “Jesus Christ is God.”
I’ve thought quite a bit about this little mark for the past few years. Who carved it? Were they scared that it would be deciphered? And what would have happened to them if it had been? Acts 19 reveals that the early Christians in Ephesus didn’t have a very easy road in front of them for following Jesus.
I just finished N.T. Wright’s book “For All God’s Worth.” A book that is primarily about worship and how the church is called to be in the world. If you haven’t read it, you should. The final chapter is worth the price of the book.
Wright talks about how the Sermon on the Mount should be understood in the context of the 1st Century setting that it took place in. A time when Israel was riddled with one failed, violent revolution after another. And with each one they hated Rome/Herod/Tax-Collectors more and more.
For example, Matthew 5 starts by saying that when he saw the crowds, Jesus went up on the Mountain side and sat down. That means something.
Jesus knew what was up with this crowd. Much like John 6, they wanted a revolution. That’s what really got crowds together in that day. And when Jesus took them up on the Mountainside that was exactly what they thought he was doing. See, to go to the mountain is to get away. Away from the ears of the powers that run the world and scheme about a new way of running the world. A century earlier that’s where a holy brigand had gathered to plan out their rebellion.
The crowd wanted a new Kingdom…and that’s exactly what they got.
When Jesus ends his little talk with the phrase, build your house upon the rock, that’s important. N.T. Wright makes the point that this is Temple Language. Jesus is cryptically, but emphatically calling out the powers of Rome/Israel from the ruling aristocrats to the leaders of the Temple.
The sermon on the Mount was a subversive, non-violent, Kingdom message.
Jesus was critiquing both Rome’s way of ruling, and Israel’s way of being God’s people.
I like the way Erwin McManus talks about the relevance of this for today:
“Two Thousand years ago God started a revolt against the religion He started. So don’t ever put
it past God to cause a groundswell movement against churches and Christian institutions that
bear his name. If He was willing to turn Judaism upside down, don’t think for a moment our
institutions are safe from a divine revolt.”
The truth is that the Gospel, at it’s core is subversive. That is it’s a sub-version, a counter-version of what is being presented as the dominant reality. But it’s a different kind of subversion. It doesn’t operate like other revolutions. The people of Jesus day went to the mountain expecting one thing, and they walked back down thinking another.
And if we don’t get that then the Beatitudes are going to be nothing but something to put on a Collector’s plate or lovely plaque.
The truth is that every faith tries to find it’s place in society, and then attempts to become something it’s not. We call this civil religion. And when we are tempted to beat our plowshares into swords, when we are tempted to live like our story isn’t that different at all….
Then maybe it’s time to go back up into the mountains to listen to a fresh word from Jesus.
To be reminded that it’s the poor, the persecuted, the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for the presence of God are really blessed.
That way of living is still subversive.
It always has been.