The First Christians Were Not Like Us
Sermon preached on Sunday, July 31, 2022 by Dn. James Wilcox
Matthew 9:27-35; Romans 15:1-7
This morning we arrive at a Gospel text that presents us with two healing accounts. We have the healing of two blind men, and the healing of a demon-possessed man who could not speak. No other Gospel text brings these two accounts together into the same passage the way Matthew does in this case. So a question one might ask is "Why does Matthew choose to bring these two stories together for the sake of his Gospel?" I don't think we can know the answer for certain, but we can make some pretty good guesses. One possible reason might be found in Matthew's earlier chapters, which lead us to these healing accounts we just read about in Chapter 9.
Now, anytime I encounter a passage of Scripture that requires some deeper investigation, I find it useful to keep one particular phrase in mind from David Bentley Hart. Hart, as one of Orthodoxy's more thoughtful scholars, states very simply that, "The first Christians were not like us." And I find this concise statement very helpful in checking my own perspective, because it's very easy to read our own experience into the biblical text. And when we read our own experience into the biblical text, we risk losing its spiritual meaning. Hart expands upon his phrase a bit more in the introduction to his translation of the New Testament. He writes that,
The first Christians certainly bore very little resemblance to the faithful of our day, or to any generation of Christians that has felt quite at home in the world … complacently comfortable with material possessions and national loyalties… In truth, I suspect that very few of us, in even our wildest imaginings, could ever desire to be the kind of persons that the New Testament describes as fitting the pattern of life in Christ. 1
This is a particularly striking observation, if not convicting, for the fact of its deeper truth. What we often take to be "Christian" in 21st century America, is often quite different than the form of Christianity practiced by the Christians of the first century. In an example, I recently saw a social media post from an outspoken politician who stated, "I'm a God-fearing Christian. I love our country and it's people. This is why I'm a proud Christian Nationalist." (This also person had T-shirts available with the slogan emblazoned across the front and a photo of themselves with their fists raised standing in a fighting position). One doesn't need to search the whole of Christian history at an academic level to recognize that this statement (and this attitude) would have been entirely foreign to the faith-practice of a first century Christian. And yet, Christian Nationalism is on the rise as a popular religious ideology in America. And in many cases is likened to being a follower of Jesus.
Well… Matthew the Evangelist was a first-century Christian, and the Gospel he delivered to us cuts rigidly against this type of 21st century ideology. David Bentley Hart, again, highlights some of these points from Matthew's Gospel quite distinctly in his NT introduction. He states that:
[Christ] not only demands that his followers give freely to all who ask from them (Matthew 5:42) … he explicitly forbids storing up earthly wealth… and allows instead only the hoarding of the treasures of heaven (Matthew 6:19–20)… It is truly amazing how rarely Christians seem to notice that these counsels are stated, quite decidedly, as commands. 2
Indeed, Matthew's Gospel contains bold statements and stark imagery, which strike right to the heart of those seeking power, privilege and wealth. In other words, all the things packaged and sold to us today as part of "The American Dream." And if we're still not convinced, it's hard to deny that all of this imagery is present right from the very beginning of Matthew's Gospel.
In Chapter 3, for instance, we are introduced to a man that would make most of us cringe on an ordinary day here in the U.S. Standing near the banks of the Jordan river is the depiction a guy wearing nothing more than a "garment made from the hairs of a camel, as well as a leather girdle about his loins." And his only food was "locusts and wild honey." 3 And his message? "Change your hearts. For the Kingdom of the heavens has drawn near." 4
Now, this is the man that the Orthodox faith describes as the great forerunner to Jesus Christ. If we can't see that wealth, personal power, and prestige is entirely antithetical to John's practice of Kingdom living, we can simply turn to Matthew's next sentences. The religious leaders and teachers of the law — those with all the political power, prestige, and wealth — have all come to John seeking baptism. And what is John's immediate response? "You Brood of vipers," he states. And then immediately tells them to "Bear fruit worthy of a change of heart."
And I think this phrase in particular gives a little foreshadowing to what we eventually encounter with the two blind men in Chapter 9. Following Matthew's introduction to John the Forerunner, Christ is baptized. And Matthew then tells us of Christ's temptation in the wilderness. The next three chapters are all dedicated to Christ's exposition at the Sermon on the Mount. And I have to pause at this moment to reiterate one point: to the person who seeks the way of Jesus — they cannot walk away from the Sermon on the Mount, having heard those teachings, and remain "complacently comfortable with their material possessions," to paraphrase David Bently Hart, again. And neither can they take up "national loyalties" and hold them in equal measure to their Christian faith. This is exactly what Christ rejected when Satan tempted Him in the Wilderness — "all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them… all of these shall be yours," the devil says. Christ quickly rejected this, of course. The question is… do we have the courage to do the same?
Remember… the goal of Empire is self-preservation. The goal of the Christian is self-denial on behalf of our neighbor, in emulation of Jesus Christ. As the famous line goes, "Anyone who tells you otherwise, is selling something." If we take Christ to be anything other than who He says He is, and who He demonstrates Himself to be, then we are just as blind to the reality of Christ among us, as the two men we read about in today's Gospel lesson. And if we wish to proclaim any other "gospel" and dare to call it "Christian," it would be better for us to be as silent as the demoniac.
But now we arrive at Chapter 9, and we find that upon meeting Jesus the blind men are asked, "Do you believe that I am able to do this?" Now the word Matthew uses for "believe" in this case is Πιστεύετε, which is the same word each of use will speak aloud in about 10 minutes time, when we recite the Nicene Creed together. ("I believe in one God…). And this word means "to believe, to trust, or to put one's trust in person or some thing." It doesn't mean that "I hold the intellectual opinion that such and such is a good idea," as we often use the word "believe" to mean in 21st Century America. Πιστεύετε is "belief" with concrete and firm conviction! So when Jesus asks this question of the two blind men, they affirm their conviction, and Matthew says: "… their eyes were opened." The Greek word he uses to refer to both men's eyes (ὀφθαλμῶν), is the same word used throughout the New Testament to indicate the eyes of the mind. For instance, when the two disciples meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus, following His resurrection, they don't recognize Him in this encounter. They don't recognize Him, that is, until Christ opens their eyes through an act of breaking bread with them. The text tells us that: "…their eyes were opened, and they recognized him." Incidentally, this is exactly what we are all doing here today under this roof. We have come to break bread together that we might be awakened to the reality of Christ in our midst! But allow me to ask… Do you believe that Jesus is who He says He is? We cannot drag with us who we think Jesus is, or who we want Him to be. If we continue to carry political or ideological fantasies about Jesus, we walk as blind men not yet awakened to who Christ is, and what He asks of us as followers. We need to be awaked — to have our eyes opened — to the reality of Christ as he IS … that we, like the healed demoniac, may speak freely, stating with conviction, I believe!
I'd like to close with a quote from St Augustine (on the Sermon on the Mount):
"'Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God' (Matthew 5:8). Think first of all about purifying your heart ... You believe that God is evident to the eyes like the light ... But if your eyes were clogged with sand, would you not have to wash them out before you could see the light? Your heart is defiled also. And avarice spreads its murkiness there ... Do you not realize that by hoarding in this way you are covering your heart with mud? How then will you see him whom you desire? You say to me, 'Show me your God... I answer you, Take a look at your heart." 5
1. David Bently Hart, trans., The New Testament: A Translation. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), xxiv-xxv.
2. Ibid, Hart, trans., The New Testament: xxviii-xxix.
3. Ibid, Hart, trans., The New Testament: Matt.3:4, pg 4.
5. Augustine of Hippo, Sermons 264, 4, cited from Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism. (Hyde Park: New York, 1995), 165-166.