Christians often argue about Christianity. Doctrinal statements, splitting theological hairs. We argue instead of simply marveling at Jesus. Like Mary who just sat at the feet of Jesus in worship. So today, let’s marvel, let’s take a step back and take in a bird’s eye view on Jesus and his impact on the world.
What if you wanted to change the world and your impact would be so great that the entire world would change the calendar to match your birthday? How would you go about it? It’s only happened once.
I grew up in Philadelphia. Why is there a Philadelphia? It’s from the Bible. There is a church in a town called Philadelphia and the name comes from the Greek, “brotherly love.” So Philadelphia is the city of brotherly love.
I went to UC Berkeley, right by the city of San Francisco? Why is there a San Francisco? It’s because a Catholic preacher named Saint Francis of Assisi was changed by a man named Jesus and his Franciscan order was known for its radical generosity and compassion.
Why is there a San Diego? It’s because a man named Saint Diego was changed by a man named Jesus.
Why is there a city named Alhambra? No one knows. Not even Jesus knows. But somehow my family ended up there.
You can’t look at a map without seeing the touch of Jesus. The instrument on which his enemies killed him marks more graves, adorns more jewelry and is the single most recognizable symbol in the world. His influence grows in spite of those who oppose him, often in spite of those who claim to follow him.
Yale historian Jeroslav Pelikan wrote,
“Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western Culture for almost 20 centuries.”
The first thing we can say about Jesus is that he is the least likely candidate to change the world. Jesus never held an important office or position, he never led an army, he never wrote a book. His followers were unschooled, ordinary men.
Of all people, how did Jesus start the greatest movement the world has ever known? It’s not all good. Christians, we have to admit that some terrible things have been done in the name of God by the Church or those who claimed to know God. We can’t sweep that under the rug. But if we are being objective, hearing about the negatives shouldn’t cause us to throw all the good that came with the movement started by a man named Jesus. You might not believe in his claim of divinity for now. But I invite you to put whatever prejudices you may have aside and have an open mind as we consider Jesus as a historical person who has had greater impact than anyone who ever lived.
Jesus was not a traditional leader who demanded allegiance through the force of his will or the threat of punishment. He didn’t come to BE served, but he came TO serve. He was a servant leader. The ancient world honored many virtues like courage and wisdom, but not humility. People were generally divided into first class and coach. Cicero, a Roman philosopher born about 100 years before the birth of Christ, believed that “rank must be preserved.”
Jesus went against the grain. His life as a foot-washing servant would eventually lead to the adoption of humility as a widely admired virtue. And ultimately, his death demonstrated humility to the fullest degree, if in fact his claim was true that He was the Son of God. Because if He really were the Son of God, why would someone having all the power at his disposal allow himself to be killed by his mere creatures? Historian John Dickson writes, “it is unlikely that any of us would aspire to this virtue [of humility] were it not for the historical impact of his crucifixion.” Who was this man?
Calendar: King of Kings and Lord of Lords
Jesus impacted how we view the future. In the modern era, we expect to see progress. We work hard and we expect that things will be better in the next generation. Parents hope to leave a brighter, more hopeful future for their kids. The ancient mindset didn’t think this way. Most cultures in ancient times thought of existence as cycles. An endless repetitions of ups and downs. Nations rising for a time but eventually falling and soon thereafter forgotten. Events were dated by rulers. In the year One of the reign of Augustus.
As the power faded with each subsequent Caesar, by the 6th century, a Scythian monk came long and proposed a new calendar. And the beginning of this calendar, the critical event, the hinge of history was the life of this penniless, Jewish carpenter. History is no longer an endless repetition, it’s not a cycle of ups and downs. With the coming of Jesus, there is direction, there is hope. Life is going somewhere.
Jesus is not just the greatest king who ever lived. He is the King OF Kings. He is the Lord OF Lords. His claim in the beginning was laughable when it was just Jesus and his motley crew. Between Jesus or the Roman Empire, if you were a betting man, you wouldn’t put your money on Jesus. But today, we name our kids names like Peter, John and Mary. And we name our dogs, Caesar and Nero. Interesting, isn’t it?
Aside from what you may think about Jesus’ claims of divinity, don’t you find it strange that every ruler and dictator and king who ever lived must be dated and referenced to the life of Jesus. Nero died in the year of our Lord, 68. Napoleon died in the year of our Lord, 1828. Stalin died in the year of our Lord, 1953. Who was this man?
Jesus changed our notion of compassion. In ancient Greece and Rome, the beautiful, the strong, those of noble birth were admired. A rich man might have given money to the poor but it was just a way to demonstrate the rich man’s greatness. In contrast, the weak, the poor, the sick, the marginalized were not generally valued. Seneca, a Roman philosopher, recorded that in his day, if a child was born weak or abnormal, the child was drowned. This was not shameful. This was not covered up. It was just the way life was.
Children back then were routinely left to die, particularly if they were the wrong gender. Anyone want to guess what the wrong gender was? Rodney Stark, sociologist of religion from Baylor University, says that there were 1.4 million boys for every 1 million girls. If you do the math, this means that 400,00 girls were left to die. But there was a little group of Jesus followers who remembered the words of their teacher when Jesus said, let the little children come to me. Christians began the practice of having godparents because even a good number of parents didn’t live long back then. And this practice insured that the kids would be taken care of.
Unwanted infants were often left at the doorsteps of monasteries. Christians would care for these abandoned kids. These became the first orphanages. Widows who lived long past their deceased spouses were considered a drag on the economy. Jesus took the time to make sure that his widowed mother was cared for.
In the first 2 centuries, there were plagues that killed one fourth, up to one third of the population of the Roman Empire. This created such a panic that at the first onset of a contagious disease, those who were suffering were pushed away. People fled from their dearest, their own family members and loved ones, throwing them in the road before they were dead. Unburied corpses were treated like dirt. Christians were the only ones who were willing to put their own lives at risk to care for people suffering from these diseases because they recalled how Jesus cared for the lepers, the blind, and his words which rung in their ears–whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto me. In the 4th century, Benedict established one of the first hospitals. By 6th century, most monasteries had hospitals attached to them.
Jesus taught his followers and exemplified for them how to show compassion on any human being who was suffering. That’s why through the Geneva Convention–a permanent relief agency for humanitarian aid during wartime was established and they chose as its symbol a cross on a white flag known as the Red Cross. Whenever you hear about the Salvation Army, or World Vision, or the YMCA, or Habitat for Humanity, or Compassion International, or whenever you hear names of hospitals like “Good Samaritan,” and “Good Shepherd,” you are seeing the touch of Jesus.
A child with Downs Syndrome, or the mentally ill or broken, they were viewed by our ancestors as burdens to be discarded. They were drowned. We see them instead as bearers of the image of God, bearers of divine glory, who can touch our conscience, they can teach and ennoble us all, and they are worth the best sacrifices we can give.
In the field of medicine, in hospitals and hospices, in orphanages, wherever we see displays of genuine compassion and genuine self-giving for the lowly, for those who cannot repay, there are roots that lead back to Jesus. Who was this man?