When Jesus of Nazareth began his brief (one to three years) ministry, he did not, while on Earth, start a new religion. What he started was a movement to reform certain practices and focuses of Judaism, his religion.
Which is why religion scholars — the best ones, anyway — don’t refer to Jesus’ 12 apostles as Christians. And they say it’s anachronistic to speak of Christianity as a separate religion from Judaism until decades after Jesus’ time. The term they most often use to refer to people attracted to the life and message of Jesus in the early years is the Jesus Movement.
Michael B. Curry , presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, thinks it’s time for a renewed Jesus Movement, one that draws its focus and energy from the teachings of Jesus and that de-emphasizes the institutional nature of the church.
Curry was in Kansas City (and Springfield, Missouri) this past weekend for an event called “Awakening the Spirit.” I had a chance to talk with him at the Power & Light District in downtown Kansas City before he addressed the crowd there.
“… whether it’s the church or any organization or institution, the further it gets away from its reason for being, the weaker it becomes. And the closer it gets to its reason for being, the stronger it will be.” —
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.
“I really believe,” he told me, “that whether it’s the church or any organization or institution, the further it gets away from its reason for being, the weaker it becomes. And the closer it gets to its reason for being, the stronger it will be. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been using the language of the church being a Jesus movement. That’s where the origins are. Jesus began a movement and that movement gathered around him and changed lives.”
For the institutional church, he said, it means “reclaiming who you are. The closer we are to our deepest roots as followers of Jesus of Nazareth I think the more effective we will be in engaging the culture and being a witness in our time.”
I asked him how a church can appeal to people rooted in our 21st Century scientific culture and worldview who struggle to make sense of stories from the gospels about the virgin birth, resurrection, a man who can walk on water and calm stormy seas with a word.
Curry said the thing to do is to focus not on those things but on the loving spirit of Jesus and how we might acquire that same kind of spirit: “Then the kind of life that Jesus lived becomes a possibility for me now.” Rather than getting stuck in arguments about whether Jesus really drove demons out of people or raised Lazarus from the dead, he said, people should try to live in ways that mirror the spirit of Jesus. “That’s a game changer,” he said.
Christianity is really quite simple, he said: “Love God, love thy neighbor. That’s the whole kit and caboodle.”
Curry said he’s “finding a receptivity” to his idea of describing his denomination as “the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement. It’s reclaiming who we are in the first place. It’s not actually anything new. It’s going down to our deep roots … This is a cause, a cause that actually changed lives and changed the world for good.”
The Episcopal Church, like such Mainline Protestant churches as the Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians, has seen its membership numbers decline in recent years for a number of reasons, including people who left the church when it began ordaining otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians. That’s what is bringing the United Methodist Church to the edge of schism today, as I wrote about recently here. But the core issue is not about sexuality but about how to interpret the Bible.
So Curry is right to try to return to the center of the Christian faith, Jesus Christ himself. Whether the Episcopal Church as an institution can deliver that message in an effective way — or whether some new forms of messenger are needed — isn’t yet clear. Often across history the institutional church universal (not just the Episcopalians) has been as much a hindrance to the message as a help.
Maybe the Jesus movement Curry is promoting can help to change that.
- Bill Tammeus’ blog: billtammeus.typepad.com/my_weblog/
- This article originally appeared here: billtammeus.typepad.com/my_weblog/2017/05/5-10-17.html