When we compare our times as Christians today to those of the first centuries of Christianity within the Roman empire, we tend to imagine a distorted picture. We think of epic persecutions and dramatic successes, remarkable growth and change. And then we imagine ourselves today in an epic story. This is not the point. Roman persecutions were real, but actually quite sporadic. Christians lived in relative peace and were for the most part ignored. Christians were perhaps 10 percent of the population by the time the Emperor Constantine accepted Christianity on his deathbed. And Christians did not become the majority in the Roman Empire until well after Christianity became compulsory. What is the actual lesson? What can we learn from those times and ours? Not that our time is one of anti-Christian persecution like Roman times, nor that our time is one of epic growth like Roman times. We can’t read those things into that actual past for the same reason we can’t read into the history of Judaism that God granted the Promised Land through a series of successful and blood holy wars. Such narratives instead tell us about those who told such narratives—and, yes, the divine truths of accompaniment and faithfulness revealed in the narratives themselves. Yet deep insight can be encountered in the simple comparison between ancient Roman times and our times. We can learn how to live the reality of pluralism, of being surrounded by many options, including religious sensibilities that have little embrace of the transcendent. We can learn to reflect on what it means to be a presence, a witness, but not a controlling or dominating one. And not to covet nor wax nostalgic for control or domination. We can best follow in the footsteps of our ancient Christian ancestors precisely by living in religious pluralism and dealing with diversity in ordinary, non-apocalyptic ways, building up the community without embracing accounts of exclusion or exclusivity. The Reign of God is a mustard seed.
Authors Bryan FroehleRestricted
Let’s all go live in the early church! What a delightful community that was: the apostles as teachers, continual fervent prayer, and the meaningful breaking of bread. Awe came upon everyone, we are told; signs and wonders were commonplace. No one had more than they needed, and no one had less. Praise leapt from every sincere heart. And the community multiplied like hot cakes, as more people wanted whatever it is those folks were having. It would be ecstatic to live in such a place and time—but for one thing. It’s an ideal community, which means you and I are ill suited for it. In fact, most people were. From what we can tell from the letters of Paul, which were written to “real” communities, the early church had tons of conflicts and arguments and power plays and sinners causing trouble. In fact, the “real” communities Paul dealt with don’t resemble Luke’s “ideal” community much at all. Paul’s communities sound more like—gasp!—the church we know and love and occasionally suffer today. So I suspect we’re stuck with it. In search of the church Lots of people disagree with me about how stuck we are; you are welcome to join them. They are mostly known as Protestants, who left the imperfect church we know in order to found a better one, which they are convinced is possible. It has to be possible because Luke says so. History relates that the perfect congregations of the Reformation were later abandoned by some who found them inadequate and started their own, and so on through several thousand branchings so far. The perfect church, it seems, may not be a matter of the right pastor, the right doctrine, the right ritual, or the right interpretation. Unless you get perfect people to join it, I suspect, sooner or later, the institution ends up looking suspiciously like Paul’s communities instead of Luke’s. So where do we go looking for the church, the real church, and nothing but the church? Ask Jesus. After the Resurrection, he had one place to go, and that was back to the disciples. Oh, yeah: These were the people who denied and betrayed and abandoned him not so long ago. These were the people who never understood what he said or did, no matter how simple it was. These were the folks with no special talents or skills, short on brains, long on insecurities. Jesus came back to those old sinners and said, “Peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit.” Was he kidding? Jesus sent the apostles out to be, well, apostles, the ones sent. He sent sinners out to forgive sins. He sent doubters out to spread the faith. Either Jesus didn’t have other options, or he did it deliberately. Or both. My Lord and my God! The story of Thomas is standard during the Easter season, the time dedicated to remembering the early church. We kick off the post-Resurrection narrative with Thomas because he’s the “twin.” Whose twin? Ours, most likely. Thomas is like us, ready to believe, but only if you pull out all the stops and give him a dramatic example of why he should. If he can touch Jesus with his bare hands, he’ll show you all the faith you want! And when Jesus takes him up on the dare, by golly, Thomas is all proclamation: “My Lord and my God!” We call him the Doubter, rather unfairly, because he is also the Proclaimer. It’s just that Thomas requires certain circumstances under which he is prepared to render his faith. The truth is, so do we. So did the ideal early church, which vacuumed up new members in droves because of what people saw happening all around them. If they hadn’t seen the changes in their neighbors, heard the singing, felt the excitement, no one would have signed up for Baptism. And if you and I didn’t know people whose lives were transformed by the gospel—the saints at the least, our grandmother or brother or friend most hopefully—we wouldn’t be here celebrating the Easter mysteries, either. No one comes to faith in isolation. No one plucks Christianity off the shelf of potential world religions and decides intellectually it’s right for them. Christianity is an incarnate religion, all about what happens when God gets flesh and blood and dwells in our midst. People come to the church because they see something they haven’t seen outside of it. We all say “My Lord and my God!” because somewhere, in a place we can touch, the glory of God was concretely proven to us. Related scripture links Knowing by touch: 1 John 1-4 Walking by faith: 2 Cor. 5:7 The virtue of singing: Col. 3:16; Ps. 149:1 Idealism in Acts: Acts 2:42-47; 5:12-16; 9:31 No perfection in the people of God: 1 Cor. 1:26-31 Catechism links Identity of Jesus: CCC 202; 422451; 456478; 520; 555; 625626; 668674; 678679; 1065; 1618; 1701; 17081709; 1717; 1953Restricted
How do you know that something or someone is successful? You go by the numbers! An organization that attracts 20 members is better than one with only five. A person making a six-figure salary is doing well compared with someone earning minimum wage. A website that gets a thousand hits a day is more hip than one that hardly gets a look. We measure most everything by the numbers. The only time bigger isn’t necessarily better is when we look down at the bathroom scale! Because we are so used to quantifying merit in terms of amounts, it is hard to put away that yardstick and to think in terms of quality, virtue, sincerity, or justice. How would we measure the relative success of such things? Is one true friend better than 20 fair-weather acquaintances? Is integrity worth more than financial security? When we move beyond the numbers, we find ourselves in a realm where it is hard to compare and harder to judge. The greening church The early church was, by any measure, a growth industry. But the early signs went in the opposite direction. For the three years that Jesus ministered, he had the same 12 apostles he could (almost) count on. By the time of his death, that number had been reduced to 11. The election of Matthias to fill the place of Judas brought the number back up to an even dozen, significant for reasons having to do with the “completeness” of the 12 tribes of Jacob. By the looks of things, this wasn’t going to be an extensive organization. And then, Pentecost struck, and the Holy Spirit changed the rules. Three thousand were baptized that day, which would have been a good day even by John the Baptist’s standards. Not long after, when Peter cured the man at the Beautiful Gate, scripture tells us the number of believers grew to 5,000. Among those who signed up was Barnabas, a great sort of catch to make when you’re fishing for people. This Levite would become an apostle in his own right, in the great mission to the Gentiles. As the number of believers increased, so did the miraculous healings. The sick were laid out in cots on the street, in the hope that Peter’s shadow might fall on them and produce a cure. From the towns around Jerusalem, people begin to haul in the sick and the possessed to be cured. The community of faith grew so large, deacons were needed to oversee the daily distribution of food. In awed tones, the narrator of Acts tells us that even a large number of priests were becoming obedient to the faith. What a church this was turning out to be! Despite the martyrdom of Stephen, and the ensuing persecution, the church continued to grow. In Galilee to the north, Samaria to the east, and all around Judea, people walked in the fear of the Lord and the consolation of the Holy Spirit. And the church, we are told, was at peace in all these places. At peace—sort of One addition to the church was unsought and unwelcome, at least in the beginning. Saul the Pharisee, a persecutor of Christians, “got Jesus” en route to another arrest. No one had bothered to try to convert Saul; who wanted such a monster on the side of righteousness? Evidently, Jesus did. But the Jerusalem Christians, seized by fear, didn’t want any part of Saul. If Barnabas hadn’t spoken up for him and agreed to be his sponsor, chances are the greatest missionary of the church would have been sidelined right there. As a member of the priestly caste, Barnabas well understood how such a complete conversion was possible. Yet even with such an important champion, Saul got into too much trouble in Jerusalem and was quickly shipped home to Tarsus. He would spend the rest of his life as far from the center of Christianity as possible. The addition of Paul, and by extension, the Gentile mission, created a rift in the church that was difficult to overcome. There would always be Jewish Christians, trying to make law-abiding Jews out of the Gentiles who accepted Baptism. Paul would always be pushing back aggressively, insisting that Jesus Christ was sufficient for salvation. If the powers-that-be in Jerusalem and Rome were mutually promoting the persecution of the church, within the church the infighting could get pretty ugly, too. Paul’s authority as an apostle was constantly questioned. Paul sarcastically called for the castration of those so obsessed with circumcision. Within the celebration of the eucharistic meal, the poor were snubbed, and Jews refused to share a table with Gentiles. The church at peace could often be mistaken for a society at the brink of a brawl. Related scripture links Growth of the early church: Acts 2:41, 46-47; 4:4, 32-37; 5:12-16; 6:1-7; 9:31; 11:23-24 Saul’s conversion: Acts 9:1-30 Conflict and circumcision: Gal. 1:6-2:21; 5:1-6:15 Christ is our peace: Eph. 2:11-22 Catechism Links Jesus as vine: CCC 737; 755; 864; 1108; 1694; 1988; 2074; 2732Restricted