Posts Tagged ‘early Christianity’

JOHN 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

26 “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27 You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

4b “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you.But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

The apostle Paul says that “the Lord [Jesus Christ] is the Spirit” present in the worshiping community. Although the distinctions that would later be formalized in the doctrine of the Trinity were not yet clearly defined in the New Testament, we can see their evolution through the decades of the first century.

Initially the Holy Spirit was understood to have come upon Jesus, anointing and empowering him for his ministry. Then, as the influence of his personality and unique vision grew in the faith and mission of the early Christian movement, the Spirit became increasingly identified with (the spirit of) Jesus himself. The reader may recall that later in this same Gospel (20:22) the risen Jesus breathes into the community of disciples the Holy Spirit, which by now is seen as his spirit living within them.

Apparently there were some in the early Church who wanted to “hold on to Jesus,” who, in other words, couldn’t let go of the fact that Jesus as they knew him was no longer with them. It was necessary for the first Christians – as it still is necessary for every Christian – to evolve from being followers of Jesus to becoming bearers of Christ. As long as they continued to look back and review the material of their tradition, they were impeding their own growth and advancement into the future frontier of world mission. “If I do not go away, the Advocate will not come.”

Sometimes you’ve got to let go in order to grow!

ACTS 10:44-48

44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said,47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

For Peter and the rest, this inclusion of the Gentiles in the universal community of the gospel was not the decision of some “warm tug” at the heart. Rather it was an act of fidelity to what was unmistakably the work of the Holy Spirit, alive in the world outside the Christian circle as thus far defined. Such fidelity must be recognized as a genuine aspect of love, filling out and expanding our usual notions that tend in more sentimental directions.

Love isn’t always a feel-good experience. There are times when the unifying energy of love exerts great stress on our self-definitions, stretching and sometimes breaking them open in its powerful advance. Our experience in such moments is far from pleasant, and can even be downright terrifying. If God wants to open you up and you want above all to hold it together, then God will appear more demonic than benign, more “wrathful” than benevolent.

That is precisely when it serves you well to know the deeper ways of God.

ACTS 8:26-40

26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.)27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
    and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
        so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
    Who can describe his generation?
        For his life is taken away from the earth.”

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

This passage gives us a look inside what may be the earliest Christian creative reflection on the salvation found in Jesus. We know that during the decade following his crucifixion the community of disciples was turning the stones in nearly every available tradition, searching for the images, prophecies, and other clues that might help place the tragic death of Jesus within a larger frame of divine purpose.

Attempting to bypass the “offense of the cross,” some had elected to concentrate only on his teachings as comprising a new ethic to live by, while others were centering on the Spirit of Christ present in the worshiping community. But the cross wouldn’t fade into the background; somehow it was not only not to be avoided, but it represented the core truth of Jesus and his gospel.

That’s when the Servant Songs of Isaiah suddenly burst upon the Christology of the early Church, and with an energy that transformed their memory of the suffering Jesus into a picture of redemptive fulfillment. Philip opened the eyes of the Ethiopian eunuch to see how in the passion and crucifixion of Jesus, the sovereignty of God broke into the fallen world with a love that heals, welcomes, and forgives all. The eunuch understood immediately what all this meant for him personally: he got “cleaned up,” turned his life around, and entered into the joy of salvation.

ACTS 4:32-35

32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Earliest Christianity, according to the view provided in the New Testament book of Acts (“Acts of the Apostles”), was a true form of communism, where the later axiom of Karl Marx – “from each according to ability, to each according to need” – was collectively honored and faithfully practiced. There was little ambition for personal property or worldly success, as their focus and allegiance were fastened on something transcendent and future-oriented. This reality, being both the providential support as well as the driving power beneath and within the emerging community of the Church, was the reign of God as proclaimed and personified by Jesus.

In fact, what is called the Easter Event can be understood as the experience of being grasped by the very power that Jesus embodied, along with the vision that had inspired his devotion and personal sacrifice. The moment after the cross when the fearful company of disciples was seized with the realization of this spirit of Jesus as miraculously enduring and presently available, was the resurrection of Christ into the community of the gospel. Such living and functioning together as one is what the apostle Paul would refer to as “the body of Christ, his Church.”

EPHESIANS 1:15-23

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

As the decades after Jesus rolled on and Christianity shifted paradigms, from a Hebraic-historical to a Hellenic-metaphysical orientation, the work of Christology (the theory and doctrine concerning Jesus as the Christ) became increasingly other-worldly in focus. Earliest (oral) traditions had tried to continue with the social revolution begun in the life and teachings of Jesus, proclaiming human freedom from guilt and debt by a new dispensation of God’s unconditional forgiveness. As time went on, however, as the religio-political system of oppression continued and grew even more sinister, Christians began turning their hope to other dimensions – first to an end-time apocalypse and then to the realm of metaphysics.

The letter to the congregation in Ephesus (Ephesians) was written in the name of Paul, but not likely by the apostle himself. Its language is freighted with Greek metaphysics, where victory over the axis of evil is less an awaited future event (the Jewish expectation) than a current fact, with Jesus (as Christ) presently exalted over every rule and authority and power and dominion. This is obviously a long way from the gospel guerrilla who was crucified for his perceived role in fomenting revolt against Rome, and a good distance also from the apocalyptic messiah who will come again someday soon.

We’re not saying that a metaphysically oriented religion is bad or wrong, by any means, only that this shift from “what’s ahead” to “what’s above” changed the nature of Christianity in a fundamental way. Indeed Jesus’ kingdom movement, announcing the in-breaking power of God through the surrender of faith, the courageous decision to act, and the generous outreach of love, soon was transformed into an institution of ordained leaders, orthodox doctrines, membership rosters, and operating budgets.

With this shift from history to metaphysics, from the temporal urgency of Jesus to the transcendent deity of Christ, from social revolution in the world to individual salvation from the world, it might be said that Christianity lost its way and became a world religion.

ACTS 2:14a, 36-41

14a But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them:

36 “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40 And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

This may be the very point at which early Christianity lost its way. How faithful to the original message and First Voice of Jesus is this exhortation to “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation”? Not close at all! Jesus didn’t proclaim his gospel as a way out, or call on his followers to separate themselves from the world.

And then there’s this: “Repent … and be baptized so that your sins may be forgiven.” In the original gospel of Jesus there was no “so that” – no conditions to be satisfied nor repentance required before God was willing to forgive. His “good news” (gospel) was that it is already done! Forgiveness has been accomplished. God’s love for the world is unconditional, boundless, and preemptive.

So then, why the sudden reversal? How could the revolutionary message of Jesus so quickly get turned into its diametrical opposite – that people still need to be forgiven, and only those who satisfy the conditions against God’s love will be saved (rescued)?

Our clue might be given in this story of Peter’s first “church sermon” during the Jewish feast of Pentecost. Already in the previous chapter a matter of ecclesiastical policy had to be worked out, as a replacement for the traitor Judas needed to be identified and properly installed. The author of Acts (traditionally Luke) wrote the larger narrative in order to give an account of Christianity’s rise from a ragtag band of twelve to the organized religion it would become.

                                                                                                 

How do you get from an itinerant company following the winds of the spirit and going toward human need, to a corporate institution where membership qualifications, a leadership hierarchy, and doctrinal conformity are paramount? The short answer is that you change how you do things.

The fact is, Jesus’ gospel of unconditional forgiveness doesn’t fly well inside a church where there’s no wind. Churches, denominations, and religions are inevitably faced with the challenge of defining the difference between insiders and outsiders. For Jesus there were no outsiders, which made it meaningless to speak of insiders. By opening one’s life to the liberating power of God’s love and living courageously in that freedom for the purpose of liberating others, Jesus would sometimes say that a person “entered” the kingdom of God. But this kingdom has no membership.

It’s not easy for people to get their minds around this concept of community as a spreading organism rather than an enclosed membership, but Jesus repeatedly pushed back on demands that he should set up a board of directors, organize the roster, and publish an orthodoxy. When he died, however, the demands won out and Jesus’ kingdom movement became an established religion.

That’s the sociopolitical explanation, but there is also a psychospiritual one. It has to do with the fact that unconditional forgiveness, genuine community, and a relentless pursuit of human liberation are impossible for our egos to accept. If God has forgiven me without conditions, then in accepting it I will be empowered to do the same on behalf of my enemy. But loving my enemy will require that I let go of my self-definition as the righteous and innocent opponent of my enemy.

The problem is that my ego has no reality underneath these labels of self-definition; it is a pure construct. Letting go is certain death.

To love as Jesus said God loves, and to forgive regardless of whether our enemies see their error and repent, requires too much of us. Who I am must be given up on the cross (released, set aside, transcended) so that a greater love can move through me (resurrection).

Frankly, I’d rather not. Please change the message and compensate me with the salvation I have earned by repenting, getting baptized, and believing the right things.

Thankfully, the Christian Church obliged.

COLOSSIANS 3:1-4

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

If you have been raised …  This requires us to shift our thinking about resurrection from an end-time event, or even a postmortem event, to something that Paul looked for in the here-and-now. It’s very likely that this letter to the congregations in the region of Colossae was not written directly by the apostle Paul, but instead by a successor in the Pauline tradition of early Christianity.

The letter amounts to a defense (called an apology) against the tendency toward Gnosticism in the Greek streams of Christian development. While much about Greek culture was a celebration of the body, physical beauty, and the sensual enjoyment of life, the influence of Greek philosophy – particularly under the guiding theory of Plato and the Orphic tradition – emphasized acetic discipline of the body, renunciation of animal passions, and eventual escape of the immortal soul from its mortal coil.

Some strains of Gnosticism advised early Christ-followers to deny the physical reality of Jesus, suggesting instead that he was truly a spirit-being in mortal disguise – that his body only seemed to be real but was only an illusion. He didn’t really die (since he wasn’t mortal), except to the minds of the ignorant who were spiritually blind to his essential truth. The career-path of Christ only appeared as Jesus in order to capture our devoted attention and carry it away from the material realm and ultimately out of this world.

                                                                                           

The reader will recognize that orthodoxy Christianity eventually went in a “gnostic” direction – emphasizing immortality over resurrection (more on that in a bit), soul over body, afterlife over this life, and, since woman’s body is so deeply entwined with the rhythms of earth, moon and natural time, also male over female, reason over passion, doctrine over experience, and meaning over mystery.

Even the apology of Colossians illustrates the challenge early Christianity had in preserving its Hebraic origins as it accommodated to the wider Greek culture (the future of its expanding empire). The contrast of “above” and “below” might suggest a logic of dualism, which can easily slip into Gnostic assumptions and convictions.

Jesus and his initial revolution had germinated in a different value-context, particularly when it came to the appraisal of creation, matter, body and time. For the Hebrews, these are not corrupt, evil or illusory. Instead they represent the manifestation of divine glory and the embodiment of God’s sacred purpose.

For the Hebrew, resurrection represented the sanctification of flesh, to the point where the expired physical reality of the body is renewed and becomes again an epiphany of the spirit. But it wasn’t about getting the departed soul back into its carnal container – which is how a Gnostic would see it, and with considerable disgust. The Greek problem was due to the fact that its worldview and anthropology (view of human nature) were dualistic; a “reunion” of soul and body would be going in the absolutely wrong direction.

The Hebraic view, however, saw body and soul as essential aspects of a single mystery – the living person. In this value system, resurrection is the symbol of healing, communion, wholeness and authentic life. As we contemplate the witness and example of Jesus, as we follow him to the cross where he died in solidarity with God’s love for the world, we can also step with him into New Life (what he called the Kingdom of God) as awakened, compassionate, and generous human beings.