There's a big difference between founding a new religion and reforming one that already exists.

For instance, as a child, I was taught Martin Luther founded the Lutheran Church. As an adult, I discovered Luther originally tried to reform the Catholic Church. Lutheranism only came into existence after Catholicism's authority structure rejected his reform. I suspect that on his deathbed in 1546, Luther would have been uncomfortable if one of his followers dared to call him a Lutheran.

In the same way, modern Scripture scholars regard the historical Jesus much more as a reformer of Judaism than the founder of Christianity. Only after Judaism's loose-knit authority structure rejected His reforms did Christianity begin to strike out on its own as a new religion. If Paul or Peter, on the eve of their deaths, were asked to state their religion, each would have replied, "Jew!"

Best and worst

Reformers always operate against a background of the best and the worst in their religion. Their message makes sense only when we hear it supporting or contrasting their already-held beliefs. That's why we misunderstand Jesus' original "good news" message if we separate it from the Jewish faith from which it springs, a faith fed by prophets like Deutero-Isaiah: a reformer who constantly points to Yahweh working in the midst of people (Is 43: 16-21).

This unnamed prophet of the Babylonian Exile is convinced that Yahweh isn't a God who once did marvelous things, then went on an extended vacation. Yahweh is still working 700 years after the Israelites crossed the sea to freedom, working in a country over 500 miles away form the Promised Land. He believes that those who imitate their ancestors' relationship with Yahweh will discover Yahweh doing parallel things in their own lives.

Deutero-Isaiah addresses people who believe their faith revolves around things that happened years before in another place. Quoting Yahweh, he delivers one of Scripture's most important statements: "Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?"

Reformers constantly force people to focus on the new and the old in the here and now. They use the past of their faith as a tool to make sense out of the present. Just like Jesus in the Gospel (Jn 8: 1-11), they cut through centuries of encrusted rules, rituals and practices to discover God's initial plan for us.

Forgiveness

Everyone agrees that this well-known Gospel passage wasn't part of John's original work. Yet it fits perfectly into the life and preaching of the historical Jesus as we know it from other sources. The Galilean carpenter, bypassing 1,200 years of Mosaic Law, demands that the woman's accusers zero in on the forgiving relationship which Abraham and Sarah entered into with Yahweh long before Moses' birth. He reasons that if God has already forgiven us, then we should forgive others. Those who accuse others have forgotten that God long ago stopped accusing them.

When Paul applies this radical insight to his own life, everything changes (Phil 3: 8-14). Jesus' dying and rising becomes the filter through which he experiences his own Judaism. Accepting Jesus' emphasis on a relationship with Yahweh in place of a relationship with rules and regulations, the apostle states, "For Christ's sake I have forfeited everything; I have accounted all else rubbish so that Christ may be my wealth and I may be in Him, not having any justice of my own based on observance of the law. The justice I possess is that which comes through faith in Christ."

If we don't understand Jesus' reason for condemning certain things in His own religion and commending others, we'll never know what to condemn or commend in our religion.

(03-29-01)