Preached 2016/11/13 at Newtown Christian Church (Connecticut)
The ancient church was growing. From several thousands on Pentecost, the Christian movement spread rapidly, east to Syria and into the Persian Empire, south to Egypt and across North Africa, north and west to Asia Minor and to what we call Europe. As it spread geographically, it grew numerically. By the time of Constantine I’s accession to the throne in the early fourth century, the Christian communities within the Roman Empire, scattered unevenly, had come to comprise approximately six million people—one tenth of the imperial populace. According to one scholar, this represents a growth, on average, of approximately 40 percent per decade. Christianity was an illegal cult, subject to an imposing variety of disincentives, so its early growth is formidable and question posing. Why did the early church grow?
It is easy to compile a list of reasons for church growth that might seem obvious to us but then to observe that, alas, most of these good ideas do not occur in the sources for early Christianity. The early Christians did not engage in public preaching; it was too dangerous. There are practically no evangelists or missionaries whose names we know. Missionaries are not listed among the church’s clergy or functionaries. The early Christians had no mission boards. They did not write treatises about evangelism. In the surviving sermons and catechetical materials there are, to my knowledge, no examples of leaders urging the believers to be evangelistic. The Great Commission, so central in the missionary movement in late Christendom, was hardly mentioned by the Christians in the early centuries. Prayers for the conversion of pagans occur occasionally in the early centuries, but generally as prayers in obedience to Jesus’ command to pray for enemies and persecutors The worship services of the early Christians: were they seeker-sensitive, attempting to interpret the gospel to the pagans who attended? Alas, even this does not fit our modern templates. After Nero’s persecution in the mid-first century, the churches in the Roman Empire closed their worship services to visitors. Deacons stood at the church’s doors, serving as bouncers, checking to see that no unbaptized persons, no “lying informer,” could come into the private space—the “enclosed garden”—of the Christian community.
And yet the church was growing. Officially it was a superstitio. Prominent people scorned it. Neighbors discriminated against the Christians in countless petty ways. Periodically the church was subjected to pogroms, and three times it underwent empire-wide waves of persecution. It was hard to be a Christian. Christians knew that by becoming believers they had embraced a demanding life, which made them marginal rather than respectable. And still the church grew. Why?
The church grew in its early centuries, I believe, because it was attractive.1Alan Kreider, They Alone Know the Right Way to Live in Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future, 169-170.
I’ve just read the opening paragraphs from an article by church historian Alan Kreider entitled They Alone Know the Right Way to Live. What Kreider has to say is vital and timely. Jack has been preaching on the topic of relevance, and I know you’ve all had discussions and done some planning to address this pressing issue for not only Newtown Christian Church, but for all churches across the world, particularly those in America. Various studies and statistics have been done. The results vary, but we see common and disturbing trends. The frantic role of sales-preacher many leaders are given in the modernized church has led to a spoiled harvest: 38% of our leaders are divorced or in the process, 70% are depressed and suicidal, and 30% report sexual impropriety with their parishioners.2http://www.intothyword.org/apps/articles/default.asp?articleid=36562 Of 18-29 year olds that have been in the church, 25% say the church demonizes everything outside itself, including movies, music, culture and technology. 33% say it’s boring. 25% say faith is irrelevant and Bible teaching unclear. 20% say God is absent from their worship, and 33% say the church is ignorant of science and technology.3http://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2012/winter/youngleavechurch.html I don’t even want to talk about what those from outside the church have to say.
Suffice it to say, something has changed.
How could the church grown so rapidly under such adverse conditions in the first 300 years, only to approach death by internal bleeding in our time and country where we have peace and claim about 75% of the population? What made it attractive before, and what makes it repulsive today?
Alan Kreider emphasizes that the early church communicated face-to-face, one-on-one in daily work and life, which led to relationships, then friendship, and thus people discovered that Christians were an attractive and intriguing people worth joining. He also lists three key traits of the early Christian life.
First, spiritual power. This was expressed in several ways, such as the endurance of torture and persecution, often witnessed publicly in the amphitheater. Pagans also witnessed exorcism and healing through the prayer of Christians, all free of charge in contrast to their gods which required payment. Many people who were healed became believers.
The second thing Kreider lists was the behavior of Christians. They were aware of the problems in society, and addressed them directly and effectively in ways that surprised the pagans around them. For example, the early church was, “…committed to the sanctity of life and opposed killing in all forms—abortion, war, gladiatorial games and capital punishment. This was also true in the culturally accepted custom of discarding unwanted babies.”4Kreider, 172. The key is that, as far as I can tell, Christians didn’t waste time shaming, demanding or protesting. Rather, they directly solved the problems around them at their own expense. For example, they rescued unwanted babies and raised them as their own children. They purchased the freedom of slaves.
This perceptive understanding of and responsibility toward sin manifested in many such practical behaviors. The catacombs which we think of as the hiding places during times of persecution were originally excavated as free burial grounds for all members. The pagans valued proper burial perhaps even more than Christians, but if one didn’t pay his dues, he would receive no honor in death and no burial.
But a more extreme example of the resolve of Christians to be the salt and light in their world of darkness occurred in AD 251. From 250-251, the first empire-wide persecution swept through the church for a brutal eight months. Many apostatized. The emperor Decius died, and the persecution stopped. A few months later, Carthage was ravaged by a plague. Cyprian implored his fellow Christians to obey the command of Christ and love their enemies. So, after nearly a year of terrible persecution, the Christians of Carthage remained nursing, feeding and visiting their persecutors at the cost of their own lives as they too caught the plague.
The last thing on Kreider’s list of attractions is that Christians lived as resident aliens:
The early Christians knew that they were residents; they were like their neighbors in many ways—they wore similar clothing, they ate similar food, they observed the same customs. But they knew that they were aliens; they lived in a microsociety whose values were deviant.5Kreider, 174.
The Christians believed and lived like God was reconciling the world. They were living as though they were part of the Kingdom of God in a much fuller sense than we do today; they were a kingdom of a different order than Rome, yet they lived in Rome. All classes, trades, genders, races and ages were joined into one people that often lived together and shared their resources with common purpose, practiced values and morality which was distinct from that of the Roman people.
At this point, it would be prudent to ask why and how these early Christians were able to accomplish this radically divergent lifestyle, even as more and more pagans joined their numbers. How did they transform their worldview and ethic so completely?
Conversion was not treated lightly. They had a process called catechism, which is simply a Greek term meaning “to teach orally.” This process could last up to three years, determined by the catechumen’s ability to absorb and apply the teaching. During this time, the catechumen’s conduct would be closely monitored.
Teachers and sponsors taught the candidate a new way of living and viewing the world. The teachers imparted new narratives—the stories of the Bible, which replaced the traditional narratives of the culture, and gave the candidates biblical texts to memorize—key passages that expressed the Christian community’s beliefs and that reinforced its values of economic sharing and nonviolence. Justin reported that the teachers in Rome assisted the candidates to confront, as Cyprian did, their addictions and spiritual bondages and to be liberated from the lures of fornication, the magic arts, materialism … and violence…6Kreider, 176-177.
It was only after this process was completed that the catechumen was allowed to join the Christian community and be baptized. Now, it may seem strange at first since what we read in Acts seems like many had a much quicker path to baptism. Please bear in mind, however, that most of the accounts we read in Acts were conversions of Jews or gentiles that had already closely studied the Jewish faith and already honored God the best they could. They were already familiar with scripture and understood the lifestyle they needed to put on. As the church transitioned into the conversion of a people largely unexposed to Jewish culture and scripture, this foreknowledge was lacking and a more vigorous process was necessary. “Nothing, the Christian leaders knew, could more undercut the mission of the church than baptized Christians who did not embody the message but who instead lived by the same values as pagans.”7Kreider, 178.
The catechumens, during this time, had the opportunity to witness other Christians living and dying as martyrs. They saw what the faith truly required of them before they confessed and accepted baptism.
Another way to describe this process is discipleship. Discipleship is key to preparing and maintaining faithfulness. It would very much behoove us to consider raising the bar on what we expect of our faith. Jesus certainly had high standards for his own disciples, why are we so eager to claim conversion complete as soon as possible? Is it the count or the quality that matters?
Another trait of the regular life of the early church was their depth of worship. They really followed the model of Acts 2 and fully engaged deeply in prayer, applied teaching, and eating meals together. They practiced the Lord’s Supper in the way I’ve described over the past year in my devotionals. Their worship did not model on the theatrical experience as our modern worship often does, it focused on drawing us closer in unity and depth of commitment to an understanding of God’s Kingdom.
But things began to change in 312 AD during what has been called the Constantinian shift.
The Constantinian Shift
What I’ve described thus far was an unstoppable process of careful discipleship that produced a genuine Christian community and lifestyle that was powerfully attractive to a dark world desperate for salvation from the sin and death that surrounded all. When emperor Constantine the Great rose to power, he changed everything.
In 312, he legalized Christian worship on Sundays, allowing Christians to worship as long as they wanted rather than being required to hastily meet before working that day. He also instituted financial subsidies and royal approval. This had an insidious and transformative effect on the church. Now, rather than offering a radical community overcoming adversity, membership in the church was financially and culturally incentivized. It attracted many rich, aristocratic males who began taking over leadership positions. As one can imagine, the theology of the shift adapted to meet this internal change of culture.
As a side effect, the church shifted from a position of providing a radical alternative to the state to simply integrating with the state. Rather than opposing the principalities and powers of the world, the church began to theorize how to redeem them. Christianity became Christendom, which, in my opinion, incorporated not only the numbers of Rome, but all of its corruption and evil.
So in the last two decades of the century, the Christian emperor Theodosius I issued two rescripts: the first, of 380, closed down the assemblies of “heretical” Christians, whom it called “demented and insane”; the second, of 392, prohibited pagan worship, private or public. In various parts of the empire, armies and militant monks smashed pagan temples and looted their treasures. So the Christian church, which before Constantine had grown by attraction and since Constantine had grown by advantage, began to grow in numbers by a third means—compulsion. In 529, the emperor Justinian I brought this compulsory growth of the church to conclusion with a rescript that required the entire populace of the Roman Empire to be baptized.8Kreider, 180-181.
Thus died the church of the apostles.
Now, I say all of this not for the sake of nostalgia or to leave us in a story of loss. No, I’m telling you this because, if we can see where we’ve gone wrong, we have the immediate possibility of restoring the ancient faith. Jesus emphasized throughout His ministry that the Kingdom of God is among us. During the Last Supper, He told His disciples, “You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”9Luke 22:28-30, NRSV. If you carefully read the story of Acts and the letters, you will see that the Kingdom of God is not something far away, it’s not something out of reach, it’s something that, though incomplete, has already been handed to us. It didn’t die with the apostles, it thrived for 300 years! We are to keep it. The letters are written imploring us not to lose it. What history has shown us is that the only power that can destroy the Kingdom of God is corruption from the inside. When we give our loyalty to the kingdoms of the world and fail to see the difference between the two kingdoms, we cease to be the Kingdom of God. If we honor God with our lips but leave our hearts and lifestyle far away, we are practicing atheists. If we can adjust our patriotism and loyalty to be directed to Jesus rather than the emperor, king or president, our fears can dissolve while our faith grows. Our lives can change, and we can thrive as a united people. Rather than being a smug, self-righteous and deplorable people, we can once again be genuinely righteous and attractive to a world that is suffering and seeking real meaning, Christians rather than then citizens of Christendom.
So where do we start? The Sermon on the Mount. The things Jesus had to say there are formative to our faith. You all know the beatitudes, but what about the other things Jesus taught on the mountain?
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.10Matthew 5:17–20, NRSV.
Throughout the rest of the sermon Jesus takes the law and makes it even more extreme. Looking with lust is adultery, anger toward a brother is murder, etc. To our post-reformation tradition, we are often unable to reconcile this with traditional doctrines. Some theologians come up with ridiculous explanations, such as Jesus taught the sermon simply to demonstrate our sin and unworthiness, but doesn’t expect us to actually obey: He simply fulfills it for us and hands us His righteousness. That’s pure heresy. It stems from misunderstanding the law and what salvation and the Kingdom of God really is.
The Kingdom of God is all of us who have been saved from sin and death, we who follow Jesus and walk as He walked. What we are saved from is the deception of and slavery to sin, and from death. Resurrection, of course, is the answer to death. But sin, that’s something we have trouble understanding. But we shouldn’t. Sin is not mystical, nor is it hard to understand. All sin is rooted in deception. We see it from Genesis 3 all the way through the entire corpus of scripture.
I think what we need to understand is that Leviticus is a very practical book. Remember that when Jesus was asked what the most important commandment was, the second He gave was, “love your neighbor as yourself.” This is a quote from Leviticus. While it seems very strange to us, reading it carefully will reveal that Leviticus is about one thing: to be right with God, you have to be right with your neighbor. It is an instruction manual that seeks to explain how to make things right with your neighbor. The conflict Jesus had with the Pharisees was not to reject the law, but a false understanding of its purpose and application.
Everything in the Sermon on the Mount is about making that purpose of Leviticus clear. It’s about doing right by your neighbor. Why is this so important? Think about what the Kingdom of God promises: reconciliation of all people, forgiveness of sin, unity, eternity together. How can we have those things while being at odds with one another? For that matter, how can we be saved from sin, which Leviticus largely defines as harming others, by continuing to harm others? Like Jesus said, a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.
Many parables explain that we have been given investment capital to manage. We often conceive that this is a command to convert as many people as possible, but that’s a misreading. Think of the parable of the goats and sheep. What we do to our brother and sisters is done to Christ. As far as God is concerned, how we treat those made in His image is how we treat Him. Even the Lord’s prayer only asks God to forgive us as much as we forgive others. Let’s not underestimate the importance of this way of living. Let’s also not underestimate the importance of our brothers and sisters in being able to accomplish this goal. Christians lean on one another for the strength to live this way. Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs. Paul emphasizes the importance of assembling together.
It is essential that we in some way restore the early church’s commitment to living as an alternate kingdom and commitment to deep discipleship.
The Kingdom of the World
The kingdom of the world is different. The ultimate power of the world is death. The ultimate power of the Kingdom of God is life and recreation. The world promises justice, God offers forgiveness. We need to look closely at how Jesus interacted with Pilot. Pilot tried to overpower Jesus with threats, to which Jesus simply replied that Pilot only had as much power as God allowed, and He admitted that He was a king, but His Kingdom was not of this world. But His Kingdom is in this world. In other words, it operates in a different way. Like Jesus demonstrated and explained to His disciples, this Kingdom was not to have rulers like the gentiles. He washed their feet. The greatest of all was the most like a slave to all. We don’t seek power, we seek service. And in a strange way, this empowers us above all the fear that limits and paralyzes the rest of the world.
There is no power in heaven or earth that can separate us from the love of God. And, I think we need to remember, no power than can stop us from practicing the love of God in this world. We especially need to remember that today as our culture is clearly at a dangerous level of insecurity, fear and disunity in all quarters.
This election has exposed how fragile we Americans are as a people. We have divided very sharply and, in many ways, violence is on the rise. Many are uncertain and fear what might happen. We owe neither allegiance nor fear to any world ruler, what we need to fear is our lack of resolve to serve the Kingdom of God. The church thrived under Roman oppression. What it could not survive was being coopted by the state. And that, I fear, is exactly what the church has done, and will continue to do unless we make some radical changes immediately.
Many Christians are wasting time debating whether Trump is a messiah or the Antichrist. What a waste of time. Whenever the disciples asked Jesus about the future, He gave an unsatisfactorily vague answer that concluded with, “Be ready.” Revelation begins with letters to churches on what needed to change in their own practices. We are only told enough to know that bad things will happen, but in the end the Kingdom of God stands victorious. So let’s get to the point: be ready. In other words, be busy.
We need to understand that all principalities and powers in this world are corrupt. All use evil in the name of good. We can debate whether the sum total is benevolent or malevolent, but that misses the point. Even leaders that we respect historically, such as Lincoln, sent countless millions to death in the name of the greater good. I’m here to tell you that isn’t good enough for the Kingdom of God. We can’t support that; there is no room for compromise in the Kingdom of God. We need to be a subversive, radical alternative. The salt and light of the earth. We never demand the sacrifice of others, we willingly bear our own cross and give ourselves on behalf of others. Like Jesus, we are bearing the weight of sin in the world and making right the damage done by others.
I don’t think we can expect, nor should we waste too much effort on, the baptism of a system that can never successfully apply the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount. Whenever we demand the full ethic of Jesus to be applied to the nation, we are generally inviting fruitless anger and argumentation from those who rightly point out that the world doesn’t work that way. But we do.
The disunity resulting from the human solution to sin and death, Babel, the city, government, is exclusively repaired in the outpouring of the Spirit. While we can and should on occasion give wise counsel to the principalities and powers of the world, the most practical political action is to demonstrate the cross in each of our circumstances or, when needed, place ourselves in those circumstances. It is unreasonable to demand those outside the cross to carry it, especially when we often fail to carry it while demanding that the nation state do it for us. If all men are to be drawn to the cross, we had better be putting a few on display ourselves. Perhaps it’s one of those things that just has to be witnessed to open the possibility of understanding and, hopefully, imitation.
So, we have a choice. Whether it happens this term, or next term, or in another hundred years, at some point, our nation will fall like all other nations have. We can put our faith in our nations’ leaders like the German church did during the rise of national socialism with Hitler, accept our culture and live as native-born residents, or we can choose to be a part of a different Kingdom. We can fall with our depraved culture, or we can be resident aliens.
So how can we be relevant? How can we see growth in the Kingdom of God? How can we make the world watch us with “curiosity, admiration, irritation and envy,”11Kreider, 184. asking, “What is it that those people have in common? They seem to love each other. Why?”12Kreider, 184. Kreider suggests, “In the tradition of the early Christians, we might begin by inviting our non-Christian friends not to church services but to work with us in tasks that are expressions of our Christian discipleship.”13Kreider, 186. As the song says, and we often fail to prove, “They’ll know we’re Christians by our love.”
|↑1||Alan Kreider, They Alone Know the Right Way to Live in Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future, 169-170.|
|↑9||Luke 22:28-30, NRSV.|
|↑10||Matthew 5:17–20, NRSV.|
|↑11, ↑12||Kreider, 184.|