I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame. (Isaiah 50.6-7)
How did Christianity morph from a collection of oddballs and misfits into the communion of conformity we know today? As we read the Gospels and Acts, we must wonder if we’d be all that happy to see the Apostles in our sanctuaries, let alone trust them to lead us. Can we imagine Peter, the leather-skinned fisherman, stepping into our pulpits? What about Paul, whose infamous “thorn in the flesh” urges him to overcompensate by showing off how smart he is? Would we attend his Bible class? Let’s not forget the Early Church’s far-flung membership. When we survey the rolls peppered through the Epistles, we find slaves and masters, couples and singles, widows and kids, people of all shades and expressions, every social strata, and a spectrum of personal histories that would give today’s most progressive faith community pause.
Of course, we understand why early Christians prize diversity. They belong to Jesus, Who founded His ministry on the radically inclusive doctrine of God’s unconditional love. But we also have to factor in the prophetic tradition Jesus comes from, where eccentrics and outcasts excel. Start with Moses, a Jew raised as Egyptian royalty, a murderer on the lam who worries about his stammer and works all kinds of miracles with a stick. You’ve got David, an adulterer and terrible father, who uses poetry as a therapeutic tool. Elijah’s a manic-depressive, and his student, Elisha, wanders the land in a raggedy coat Elijah tossed to him while being flown into heaven on a celestial chariot. And we can’t forget Isaiah, who walks around naked and shoeless for three years to indicate Israel’s enemies will be stripped of power. Finally, there’s John the Baptist. He sets up shop in the wilderness, survives on honey and wild locusts, wears a hairy shirt, and spends most of his time splashing around in the Jordan River.
With roots dug deep in this wild and crazy tradition, it’s no surprise that Jesus pays no attention to His followers’ idiosyncrasies and sketchy pasts. He looks beyond their quirks and shortcomings to see their potential. Yes, He does this because, as God Incarnate, He loves them without reservation. But He’s also doing something that we, in an age of Christian homogeneity, miss. He’s assembling a prophetic community, a far different thing than starting a religion or organizing a congregation.
So how do the first Christians look and act? They’re all over the map, literally and figuratively. Unlike today, when many Christians gauge who’s in and who’s out by appearance and behavior, in the first century both criteria were useless. Indeed, judgments based on surface observations were highly suspect. The only way to identify a true Christian was by prophetic witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Early Church’s connection to prophesy—i.e., the articulated mind and will of God—is so solid that first-century believers scour the Hebrew Bible to confirm Jesus’s legitimacy. His birth and death narratives are shaped to reflect Messianic clues strung across the texts. This is why Jesus’s statements from the cross echo Psalm 22 and the details of His torture and crucifixion mirror Isaiah. In the coming days, we’ll hear these passages and nod along, thinking, this is what the prophets said and this is how it went. But something gets lost when we limit the Hebrew texts’ meaning and import to Jesus alone. And that something is us.
The suffering and rejection the ancients describe are, in many ways, as universal to every believer as they are specific to Jesus. When we open Isaiah 50—which figures prominently in many Passion liturgies—and read, “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting,” we can’t forget the prophet isn’t just talking about Jesus. He’s talking about himself, and he’s also talking about us. Gratefully, neither Isaiah (as far as we know) nor we actually experience the physical pain and humiliation he poeticizes. Yet we all know what it’s like to feel powerless, as conveyed in the image of giving our backs to those who strike us. We know how it feels to be stripped of self-worth, which, for Jewish men like Isaiah and Jesus, occurs when their beards are ripped from their faces.
The violation in these images is so hideous we have to ask why someone would do such things. Those who go to such lengths clearly have big problems with whomever they assault. It’s obvious that fear stirs up their anger since they have to be more afraid of the person they attack than penalties for their abuse. So what gives rise to such fear and hatred? Well, let’s see. You have Jesus, the Gatherer of oddballs and misfits. Then there’s Isaiah, the naked wanderer. And how do we fit into this pattern? By not fitting into conformist patterns and disrupting norms. Whether in the world or the Church—which, over the centuries, has grown dangerously at ease with adopting the world’s ways—we represent something other than normal.
How dare LGBT Christians expect faith communities to welcome and embrace them. How dare women honor their callings to ministry and ask to be respected on par with their male counterparts. How dare the poor and undereducated and abused and politically radical enter our congregations and expect to be treated as equals. How dare anyone insist prophetic witness to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection qualifies her/him for acceptance. All Christians are supposed to look, talk, and behave alike. Anything that doesn’t meet acceptable standards is something to fear. And anything that makes people afraid must be eradicated and stripped of value.
That kind of logic may work for country clubs, social orders, and political parties. But it bears not one glimmer of resemblance to the Church’s beginnings and its prophetic roots. Christian communities that genuinely heed their prophetic calling should be visibly, culturally, and spiritually diverse. Their commitment to Christ’s gospel of radical inclusion should be tested. And we who’ve been relegated to the margins are ordained to challenge the Church’s faithfulness to God’s will.
Not even Jesus could accomplish this without divine help. Nor could Isaiah. And neither can we. That’s why Isaiah’s prophecy doesn’t end with the backlash against nonconformity. “The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame,” he writes. As we enter Holy Week and witness the agony Jesus endured to remain faithful to God’s will, we must accept the same calling for our lives. We will not be disgraced. We will set our faces like flints, looking at the challenge before us without a moment’s hesitation, knowing we will not be put to shame. We can’t do this great work we’ve been given on our own. But thanks be to God, we have God’s help.
This coming week, as we stand before the cross, let us not only weep for the horrific suffering our Savior endured. Let us weep for what’s been lost by reducing the Church purchased with His blood to an insiders-only club. Let us commit our lives to reviving the Early Church’s vision of what a truly prophetic, radically inclusive faith community can be.