In 312 A.D. something really consequential happened to the Church. It was the year the emperor Constantine embraced Christianity. Whether he actually converted or not is a debate for the ages, but he did manage to bring Christianity from the shadows to the spotlight. His vision to conquer under the sign of the Cross became associated with the Church for a very long time.
The immediate effect of Constantine’s conversion, in addition to making every Pope and prelate rich, was that a religion that had been marked for extinction was suddenly elevated to the status of state religion, whether officially or not. The Church moved from the margins to the center and gradually Jesus and His teachings moved from the center to the margins.
From that day forward Christians have looked to a “savior” from the seats of power. The Church has been associated with power and wealth; the cross, which was an instrument of humiliation before, now became a banner under which Christian armies fought to conquer other people.
Jesus’ teachings on the ethics of the Kingdom, which is embodied in the sermon on the mount, were sanitized and domesticated to fit the narrative of a dynastic Messiah. They were no longer for the regular follower, only for a selected few. Or maybe they were only for the age to come; or perhaps given as an ideal to make the very point that we can’t really get there.
It is time for us to reclaim Jesus and His teachings to their place of preeminence in our lives. Let’s recognize that while there is still an aspect of the Kingdom that has yet to be realized, Jesus meant for His followers to live the ethics of the sermon on the mount in the here and now.
Constantine, and all the great minds of Church theology that legitimized his view of Christianity, managed to transform Jesus into this iconic figure that must be feared and revered, but from a safe distance, of course. He became much like the Catholic Church’s many saints at the time.
As a result of that, it was very possible to worship Jesus but not necessarily follow Him. They bowed in humble adoration but when it came to the stuff about praying for those who persecute you, they bowed out. They lingered by the train of His kingly robes but when the King stripped down His royal garb and touched lepers, they were no longer willing to hang around.
And if we are not careful, we too can let the same thing happen to us today — we can leave Jesus on the altar instead of carrying Him into the road with us; we can make Him possible but not portable. And God forbid we should go looking for somebody else, maybe another Constantine, to help us feel safe as we practice our faith. That would only detract us from the mandate to be salt and light to people who desperately need to know that Jesus has the answers to all their perplexing questions.
Time to un-radicalize the sermon on the mount and let Jesus be king again, not in a palace but in our hearts, not in an altar but in the daily decisions we make about living for Him and engaging Christ’s other friends.
Pastor Ivanildo da Costa Trindade
Lead Pastor, Grace Church, Lititz, PA