As Christians we believe that in Jesus of Nazareth we see everything we need to know about the nature of God – which is what we mean by the term ‘Son of God’. What we have in the Bible though is a series of books written by men to record their responses to God, to Jesus and to their individual situations; which as a body in turn charts an emerging faith – first of the Jews and then later of the Christians. As human creations INSPIRED by an evolving understanding of God we can see the history of thought leading up to the person of the man Jesus of Nazareth who came to be seen as the Christ but we can also examine different documents to see different aspects of the whole.
There are three strands contained within the four gospels. Peter’s memories are recorded in Mark. We know that because Bishop Papias writing in modern day Turkey around 110AD quoted John the Elder saying that ‘Stump Fingered Mark’ took down Peter’s recollections though not necessarily in the right order – and Matthew and Luke are both based on Mark. Peter’s recollections are very much of a Galilean healing ministry and of Jesus stating his authority to preach the Kingdom when challenged. The Johannine strain, which both gives a chronology which works and gives eyewitness details, is believed to be anything from late, circa 90AD, to being the earliest gospel circa 40AD – and the noted Johannine scholar Bishop John Robinson believes it to be possibly the earliest and possibly written by the apostle John himself. John himself is more interested in theJerusalem events of the two year ministry rather than the Galilean, but again records the exchanges where Jesus claims authority to preach the Kingdom. Finally we have most of the actual teaching of Jesus which doesn’t appear in either Mark or John’s gospel – and it’s accepted as coming from another source known as ‘Q’. It’s Q where the main body of Jesus’ actual teaching appears – for instance the whole of the Sermon on the Mount; it’s Matthew & Luke where the Q material is seen; and it is Q where we see this repeated phrase ‘Kingdom of God or Heaven’. In other words the Kingdom of God is the core of Jesus’ teaching.
By the time Paul is writing to the early churches he’s ‘in a different place’. Paul is having to carve out space for Jesus in amongst the many gods of the Hellanistic world and Paul was himself a Pharisaic Jew concerned with laws & so he belonged to the OLD tradition of repenting of failure. What he does is cleverly to take the idea of sin and apply it not to laws but to failing the spirit of what Jesus says. Over a period of time and many different theologians – all responding to their own society and situations – the messages changes. In one step here however we have moved from what Jesus REPRESENTS to what he IS: we’ve moved from Jesus talking about his relationship with The Father to his followers thinking of Jesus as the King. That particular shift is subtle but it’s there and it’s important because a father thinks of his children in very different ways to ruler and I actually wonder if we lost something in that early shift. Critically though we’ve also moved from the new way of repentance by looking forward to the old way of repentance by looking back at sin.
In comparison, looking at the words of Jesus’, about the Kingdom of God, they’re far more than a nice utopian dream. They represent a new approach to existence as people of God. By the time of Jesus Judaism had become a whole set of rules to be observed or transgressed against – sin; but by and large, and other than in the context of healing, Jesus does not talk about sin and instead preaches the Kingdom as a forward looking repentance. Not looking at we’ve done wrong, but one of looking at what we contribute to the kind of society God wants for us. It is very much a positive rather than a negative message; and is so important because it tells us everything about the way Jesus framed his ministry and his teaching.
Move forward to the early 5C and the noted Roman-African theologian ‘Augustine of Hippo’ is dealing both will personal breakdown and with the ongoing, slow collapse of the Roman empire & world. One of the common response within religious minded communities always has been to look at what they, individually or as a community or civilization, have done to offend God in these situations. Augustine’s response builds upon some of the ideas set out by Paul; but unsurprisingly his intellectual response also responds to his own situation and that around him; so concentrates on a type of self loathing – key to which is sin that is very changed understanding of sin, It has gone from ‘missing the mark’ as understood by Jesus and the Jews of his day to a sort of deeper, more evil & twisted, virus which is carried by women and contaminates men.
It has to be said that this ‘sin’ view of the world is not the message preached by Jesus. It is not the view of the world he lived out his life to demonstrate. Furthermore it is not a view of the world that he died to cement. The Christian world clearly ‘took a wrong turn’ when sin became central to its message, and depths of evil to which the medieval church stooped owe a lot to this flawed understanding of God’s world.