Have you seen the TV series ‘The Chosen’? We have finally started watching it. If you're not aware of it, it’s a television drama based on the life of Christ and it’s the first multi-season series about the life of Jesus. In fact, it is the highest crowd-funded TV series or film project of all time. Rotten Tomatoes rates it as 100% riveting viewing. And it is really fascinating! The series portrays Jesus "through the eyes of those who met him”. It takes us on a journey of developing the characters that we have become so used to, to reimagining them from a deeply Middle Eastern point of view. The Jewish attire, the confrontation with Rome, the dancing, family life, rituals, work. It’s all there, giving us a deep insight into the real life of Jesus and those around him.
For me, one of the most captivating parts is how Jesus first begins meeting his disciples with the words, ‘Follow Me’. These two words changed the lives of Jesus’ disciples forever. In fact, these two words have changed the lives of billions of people across the globe.
Centuries of western art depicting a fair skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus incline us to forget that Christianity came from the Middle East. ‘The Chosen’ drives this point home. Jesus’ followers were first called Christians in Antioch, the ruins of which lie in modern day Turkey. Today, this region has one of the smallest proportions of Christians. But what the Middle East and Christians lack in quantity they make up in history. Iraq is home to one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world -churches begun centuries before the foundations of Islam. The rapid decimation of these ancient faith communities is tragic. In 1987, the Christian population of Iraq was estimated at 1.4 million (about 8% of the population). After the Gulf war, that number dropped dramatically. And since the rise of ISIS, some of the oldest Christian communities are being stamped out.
But the story of the Middle Eastern churches is not only one of retreat. In 1979, there was an estimated 500 Christians from a Muslim background in Iran. A year later, the Islamic revolution transformed a relatively tolerant Muslim majority country into an oppressive regime. Women were deprived of rights they had previously enjoyed. Extreme imams grasped power. Public executions became commonplace. This led to much religious disillusionment among Iranians. Unprecedented numbers took refuge in Christianity, and today there are hundreds of thousands of Christians in Iran. Sprouting from a tiny seed, the Iranian church is the fastest growing Christian movement in the world. This is the ongoing exponential legacy of Jesus words, ‘Follow Me’.
What is fascinating about these encounters in ‘The Chosen’ is how Jesus expects people from all walks of life to work out their differences and showcase His transforming, uniting power to the world. When most people read the Gospel accounts of Jesus first encountering his disciples, we tend to regard it as just information. Or we may react by thinking what a great privilege it must have been to be with Jesus. And, actually, that’s true. Jesus was an amazing guy. Hanging out with Jesus would have been breathtaking. But in getting caught up in the wonder of being with Jesus, let’s not miss how less attractive it would have been for this twelve band of new brothers to do life together with each other. And really that is the point of these lists in the Gospels. People would have been blown over by who The Chosen were.
Let’s take James and John. In Mark’s account he names them Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17). This was a jibe at James and John. They were hot- headed, argumentative, ‘temper tantrums in the middle of Tesco’ kind of boys. These were not nice guys to hang out with. When Jesus was heading toward Jerusalem for his final days, he sent James and John to prepare things. When they got there, they found that at first the people weren't as happy about Jesus’ visit as James and John thought they should be and so it says in Luke 9:
When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them [all?”].
Sons of thunder!
What about Simon the Zealot? The Zealots were the rebels; always kicking off and causing trouble with Rome, blowing things up, creating havoc. They hated Rome and anyone who sucked up to Roman laws or officials. They also detested paying taxes to Caesar. And so what does Jesus do? He says, ‘Hi Simon the Zealot, meet Matthew.’ ‘Matthew why don't you tell Simon what you used to do? I’m sure he’ll be interested.’ ‘Err, I used to collect taxes from the Jews for Rome!’ ‘Great. You guys will be sharing a dorm together for the next three years. Have a nice day.’ Crazy!
In fact, Matthew was in charge of what was called the Capernaum Road. If you went in or out of that thoroughfare, he’d take your money and some more for himself as a perk of the job, fleecing each passer by, everyday. Mr. Tollbooth was his nickname. Everyone would have hated him in Capernaum. Where did Andrew, James, John and Peter live and have their fishing business? You guessed it! Capernaum. Welcome to the family!
And then there was Philip. His name was Greek. And the people the Zealots hated just slightly less than the Romans were the Greeks, because they were involved in changing the culture of Israel in what was called the ‘Hellenisation’ of Israel, promoted by Alexander the Great. In fact, Philip also had the same name as one of Alexander’s sons and remember, names were very important those days. They said something about what was precious to you.
So it goes on. Judas was the lone southerner - all the rest were Galilean northerners. Peter was the loud-mouthed optimist, Thomas was the pessimistic doubter. Jesus couldn't have picked a more different, difficult, dangerous group of people to say, ‘Follow Me.' But they were deliberately Jesus’ ‘Chosen’!
Before I got married, I thought I was a really nice guy. Easy going, chilled out. Deluded of course! A few years before that, when I met Charlotte and her Christian friends, as they started working at James Cook Hospital back in the 90’s, suddenly these friendships made me realise just how self-centred and messed up and me, me, me and sinful my life really was. And later on, as Charlotte and I started sharing life and home together when we got married, it was pretty much like a mirror that I didn't really want to look into. That’s what intimate relationships do.
As Jesus’ Chosen, following Him always takes us out of the boat. His will was to pour his very life out for others. It was to be ‘other aware’ more than being self-aware. Jesus shocked crowd after crowd as he broke all the rules, loving prostitutes, showing grace and mercy to tax collectors, eating with sinners, touching lepers, forgiving adulterers. His life was modelling a community all-together different from the self-righteous, hypocritical, pharisaical, tribal values of the day. And it changed the very heart of those who responded to his call, ‘Follow Me.’ Phil Moore writes,
‘Doing life with other people, always reveals to us the depth of sin which lurks hidden away in our hearts.’
Most other religious cultures try and stick to ‘their own’, however Christianity has always been different. You’d think that would slow down its spread and multiplication, but that doesn't seem to be the case.
James Hudson Taylor died in Changsha in 1905, 15 years after he set foot in Shanghai, China from the beaches of Brighton. Unlike many other missionaries of his day, Taylor refused to package Christianity with western culture. He wore Chinese clothes, grew a pigtail (as was the custom for Chinese men), and renounced western comforts. Taylor had a deep love for the people he served. He undertook medical training and regularly attended two hundred patients a day. He reflected, "I have found that there are three stages in every great work of God: first, it is impossible, then it is difficult, then it is done."
Taylor lived between stages one and two in the conversion of the country he loved. We appear today to be living between stages two and three. It is hard to get accurate data on the number of Christians in China. Due to government persecution, many worship in unofficial "house churches". But conservative estimates in 2010 put China's Christian population at over 68 million. Experts predict that there will be more Christians in China than in the United States by 2030, and that China could be a majority Christian country by 2050. Of course, there is much uncertainty. Government resistance to Christianity seems to be surging. But if China does swing from Communist to Christian in the next thirty years, the consequences for global politics will be immense.
Watching ‘The Chosen’ over the last few days has highlighted to me just how radical Jesus’ call to ‘Follow Me’ is. Personally, I’m finding this season of social distancing difficult. Community seems to be harder work. It’s maybe less attractive and enjoyable. Sometimes I hear myself say, ‘I don't like doing it this way.’ or ‘I can’t have the same conversations on Zoom like I do face to face.’, or ‘I hate looking at myself.’ or whatever. And maybe that’s true.
But Jesus’ call to Christian community has always been difficult. It’s always been not me-directed but other-directed. And so, despite the difficulties, He calls us, Jubilee, to be empowered by Him, filled with His grace and to find joy where we might least expect it. Because it is there - and only by following Him, that you, The Chosen, will find it and continue His legacy, His great Commission - Bringing the Joy News of Jesus to Everyone Everywhere!
As we come out of our Covid restrictions and look into the next season for us as Jubilee, I wanted to take this time to share some news with you regarding our next steps as a church.
This month, we're privileged to have Michael Akotia write a blog for us. Michael along with his wife Mabel and three children (John, Keziah and Grace) are dear friends to us. Michael leads City of Grace Church in Ho, Ghana and serves on the Christ Central Churches International Team.
Have you ever thought that there might actually be a number of similarities between our Christian walk and baking a cake? Gavin explores some of these similarities in this month's Elders letter!
So Sunday saw the finale of series 6 of the BBC drama Line of Duty. If you haven't been watching it or have watched the latest series then you can read on. If you still plan to watch the final installment of series 6, you may want to stop here (although it's not a huge spoiler)!