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I was saying to the students and staff at our Chapel service at the start of this term that if Christianity had been an ordinary movement, it probably would have died out! After Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of that part of the Middle East, had Jesus crucified, Christianity should have died out. The remaining disciples should have run away and gone back to their former lives and that should have been the end of the movement. They didn’t do that – they had some kind of experience of the risen Jesus being with them. Somehow, they sensed his presence with them and that gave them the courage they needed to keep going.

The proof of the power of this experience of the risen Jesus is seen in the fact that the disciples continued to spread the message that God loved everyone. We know that they were successful in the end. There are several disciples who were really important in this process. Without them, I think at Christianity might not have spread beyond the Middle East – it could easily have remained just a little movement, centred mainly around Jerusalem, which then lost momentum and petered out. I want to mention just one of the early disciples, who was really important in ensuring the fledging Christian movement didn’t just die out: Saint Paul. Much of the New Testament was written by Saint Paul. He wrote most of the letters which come after the Gospels.

Saint Paul was a prolific writer. We still have the fragments of some early copies of his letters. That’s an amazing thought in itself: we still have some of the earliest copies of his letters from almost 1,800 years old. The University of Michigan has a collection of some of these, which you can actually read online, if you can read ancient Greek! It is extraordinary when you think about it. We have a copy of letters written 2,000 years ago, and the oldest copy is 1,800 years old!

This message that God loved everyone is reflected in Saint Paul’s letters, just like it is in Jesus’ parables and other sayings in the gospels. But it was an immensely threatening message to the Roman Empire, which was built on slavery and conquest. If you say that God loves everyone, then you can’t have slavery. That was the problem that the first Christians faced, including Saint Paul. They were saying something that the entire Roman leadership disagreed with! Just like Jesus, Saint Paul got into trouble for spreading this wild idea. He mentions how much he has suffered in his second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 11, verses 24–28. Why didn’t he just give up? I mean, seriously!

Of course, the reason Christianity spread across the Roman Empire so quickly is because the first Christians, like Saint Paul, refused to give up. Not only did he write letters of encouragement to the early churches scattered around the Middle East, but he was the founder of some of them. He was the one who travelled from the Middle East, up into Turkey, through Greece, eventually spending some time in Rome, founding some churches as he went, and encouraging other churches which were already there, having been started by other Christians. So, Christianity spread across the Empire, even into ancient Britain by the end of the 2nd Century.

I said earlier than if it hadn’t been for people like Saint Paul, who took Christianity out of the Middle East and helped spread it across the Empire, then the movement might have been restricted to Jerusalem and died out. I guess that’s possible, except for one thing: the message was so life-giving, so radically important, that I don’t think it would have died out. It was an idea, whose time had come. Just think about this: Jesus, and his first followers like Saint Paul, changed the way people think about each other. They insisted that everyone is equal, everyone is loved by God, and no-one is inferior. Jesus was the first person to say this about everyone in the world. Before that, you would only say it about your immediate family, your tribe, but even then, some people were inferior to others. Jesus changed that and people like Saint Paul put their lives on the line to spread the message. You and I, a long time later, are the beneficiaries.

The Reverend Dr Theo McCall
School Chaplain