In a 1975 movie, Monty Python set out on a farcical search for something that had captivated the imagination of Western Christians since the 12th century, the Holy Grail. The story of this most publicized and precious relic in the history of Christendom originated in the year 717, when a hermit monk reported he had a vision about the dish Jesus used at the Last Supper. During the medieval period, the mythology surrounding the Holy Grail expanded, and it came to be recognized as an object that could bring healing and even eternal life. Reportedly, it was not just the dish that Jesus used at the Last Supper. It came to be described more like a chalice, and it was understood to be the very chalice in which Joseph of Arimathea (the man who buried Jesus) was said to have collected the blood of Christ at the foot of the cross.
Shortly after Christ’s death and resurrection, Joseph was said to have traveled to what is today Great Britain, taking the chalice with him. But alas, the chalice went missing. This was a convenient turn of events for King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, because their search for the Holy Grail kept them busy for a very long time. Similarly, real-life Crusaders who sought to rid the Holy Land of Muslims also pursued the Holy Grail on their journeys that ironically mixed violence and faith. Along with Monty Python in modern times, cultural icons Indiana Jones and his father, Dr. Henry Jones Sr., also obsessed over finding the Holy Grail in the 1989 movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”
Historian Richard Barber, who has written a book on the topic of the Holy Grail, tells National Geographic, “There are so many people out there looking for the thing. Actually, it’s more exciting that someone can imagine something in the 12th century … that is still a hot concept 800 years later” (fmchr.ch/nggrail).
While today most everyone understands the Holy Grail to be a mythical object, we are still captivated by the idea of it — the idea that a physical object still could exist that was in use at the most holy site of our faith, at the cross of our Savior Jesus, who died so that we might live and was resurrected, showing God’s ultimate power over death. The search for the Holy Grail symbolizes our strain over time and space to grasp onto something, anything that can connect us with Jesus’ death and resurrection. A physical relic, an object, would help us to believe. But obviously, in a physical world that decays and disintegrates, the likelihood of a physical object surviving from Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is pretty much impossible.
So what does remain? What is a tangible element that crosses centuries and geography, that literally transcends time and space and that today, just like 2,000 years ago, grips our beings and leads us to step into a faith that much of the postmodern world has rejected? The most important tangible element that bridges the 2,000-year divide is described in Psalm 118:1–2, and that is love — God’s love. This passage tells us God’s “steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever’” (New Revised Standard Version).
God’s steadfast love that extends across generations and geography is difficult to describe, because there is not an adequate English word that translates the Hebrew term that shows up here in Psalm 118. Bible translators have had a hard time figuring out how to translate the Hebrew word that is translated “steadfast love” in this version. The word appears in some other translations, such as the New American Standard Bible, as “lovingkindness.” The New Living Translation uses “faithful love.” The Hebrews understood God’s love to be unique, so unique that in English we need a longer explanation than the word “love” alone to understand it. The Hebrew word means love that is mixed with loyalty, persistence, steadiness and reliability. Still, all of these words aren’t enough to fully describe God’s love.
According to Hebrew scholar Norman Snaith, going beyond loyalty and persistence, the term we translate as steadfast love also means that “God won’t let go.” Snaith explains that while God requires righteousness, because of His love for us, God’s mercy is even stronger than the demand that we be righteous. Snaith says, “[God’s] demand for righteousness is insistent, and it is always at the maximum intensity. The loving-kindness [or steadfast love] of God means that his mercy is greater even than that” (fmchr.ch/brchesed). While guilt may torment us for whatever our past holds, God’s love never lets go of us, so that God will always grant us mercy instead of punishment when we ask.
Understanding intellectually these characteristics of God’s love is important, because when we understand personally this love, we begin to be transformed. But God’s love doesn’t just sit in our brains or our beings. The power of this love is evident through the way in which the world has changed because of it.
In my Greenville College “History of Western Civilization” class, I use a textbook that approaches the life and ministry of Jesus purely from a secular point of view. It doesn’t present Jesus as the Son of God, nor does it acknowledge the miracles that He performs. It portrays Him as a political threat who undermined the governmental foundation of Galilee, and it presents the resurrection as an assertion made by His followers, rather than an actual event. Nevertheless, this book cannot deny that the whole world changed after Jesus. The presence of Christians in the Roman Empire unsettled the culture. Small as the group was to begin with, they resisted cultural norms in ways that were disconcerting. The power of God’s love began to seep into Roman culture in ways that were attractive and liberating.
Sociologist Rodney Stark explains the Roman Empire into which Christianity was born as a “cultural chaos produced by the crazy quilt of ethnic diversity and the blazing hatreds entailed thereby.” He says, “People of many cultures [who spoke] many languages, [and worshipped] all manner of gods, had been dumped together helter-skelter” (fmchr.ch/starkth).
The healing salve that Christians poured into this environment was the message that Paul delivered to the household of the Gentile centurion Cornelius in Acts 10. Prior to Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, the disciples and other Christians believed that Jesus, whom they knew to be the Messiah, had come to bring life and salvation to Jewish people — to the Israelites. But Cornelius, not a Jew but rather a Roman centurion, sought more than what the pagan gods offered him; he wanted a spiritual life that was relevant to his world. When God gave Peter a vivid vision that revealed to him that Christianity was not a faith that should be limited to Jewish people, Peter was compelled to address Cornelius’ household with these words (v. 34–43):
“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached — how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen — by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Peter said that God shows no partiality — no bias or prejudice. Peter was saying that God has no prejudice against any culture or ethnicity. No matter what language one speaks or what one’s heritage is, the steadfast love of God that won’t let go is available to everyone through the death of Jesus on the cross.
Another radical stance that the first Christians took is that they gave equal status in the church to women and to slaves. This was a remarkable development that turned Roman culture on its head. Sociologist Stark adds, “Christianity prompted liberating social relations between the sexes and within the family…. It also greatly modulated class differences — more than rhetoric was involved when slave and noble greeted one another as brothers in Christ.”
This equal status echoed Jesus’ selection of a woman for a role labeled “the first evangelist” by multiple writers. After His resurrection, Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene in John 20 and told her: “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (v.17). She then “went to the disciples with the news: ‘I have seen the Lord!’ And she told them that he had said these things to her” (v.18).
Overwhelming evidence exists of the fact that the love of God we see through Jesus was powerful and transformative in the early church and throughout history. God’s love changes things; it changes us, and it changes the world. In the absence of a physical object, like the Holy Grail, God’s love has transcended the 2,000-year separation between Christ’s death and resurrection until today. All of that time, God’s love has been steadfast, loyal and persistent. It has never let go.
I pray that we as a church continue to exhibit the radically liberating love of God in our community and world. Our world is similar in some ways to the world into which the church was born. Ethnic and religious hatred and violence seem to have been unleashed throughout the world, even here, in the freest of all nations that the world has ever seen. Just like the early church, our actions must reveal the radically liberating and inviting aspects of Christ’s love.
After the terrorist attack in Paris on Nov. 13, 2015, New York Times reporter Joe Coscarelli interviewed Bono from U2. The rock band was in Paris at the time of the attack, preparing for a concert there that was subsequently postponed until December. Coscarelli questioned Bono about the wisdom of having a concert that would attract so many people into one place so soon after another concert hall had been bombed. Bono’s response reminded me of what Christians represent in a violent world. He said, “ISIS and these kinds of extremists are a death cult. We’re a life cult” (fmchr.ch/bonoisis).
The love of God that took Jesus to the cross and brought Him to life again brings life, rather than death and destruction, to the world in which we live.
Let us celebrate God’s love! Every day going forward, let us, like Peter, follow God’s leading and activate God’s love in the world.
“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 118:29 NRSV).
Teresa Holden, Ph.D., is the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and an assistant professor of history/political science and education at Greenville College. This article is adapted from a sermon Holden preached at St. Paul’s Free Methodist Church in Greenville, Illinois.