The Incredible Life in the Early Church
Listen to this powerful and beautiful description of the early Church from the book of Acts, which we read during this post-Paschal season:
The first Christians continued steadfastly in the apostles TEACHINGS. They SHARED ALL THINGS in common, even selling their possessions to help those in need. They PRAYED DAILY in the temple and in each others’ houses. They ate their food with GLADNESS and SIMPLICITY OF HEART. They were FILLED WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT and SPOKE THE WORD OF THE LORD with BOLDNESS. With great power they GAVE WITNESS TO THE RESURRECTION of the Lord Jesus. When they were beaten for speaking in the name of Jesus, they REJOICED that they were counted WORTHY TO SUFFER SHAME for Christ’s name. Daily and in every house THEY DID NOT CEASE TEACHING and PREACHING Jesus as the Christ! And GREAT GRACE was upon them as the Lord added to the church daily those being saved. (Acts 2:42-46; 4:31-34; 5:40-42)
What an amazing account of the early church! The first Christians’ lives were radically and forever changed by their encounter with the Risen Christ, and they were empowered in an unbelievable way by the coming of the Holy Spirit! Obviously, this was why the Church gained thousands of followers during that initial period, and this is what transformed a tiny sect of Jewish believers into a community of faith that would eventually conquer the Roman Empire and become the greatest world religion. People saw HOW the followers of Jesus lived, and WERE INSPIRED by what they saw. They witnessed an INCREDIBLY LOVING COMMUNITY OF FAITH and wanted to join them, even though it was dangerous to become one of them! Listen again carefully to how the first Christians lived:
- LEARNING and GROWING in the TEACHINGS of Jesus;
- Experiencing nourishing and encouraging FELLOWSHIP with one another;
- Sharing all they had with an extreme GENEROSITY with one another;
- PRAYING CONSTANTLY in the temple and in one another’s homes;
- RADIATING JOY and GLADNESS even when they SUFFERED;
- Finding the COURAGE to SPEAK BOLDLY about the Good News of Jesus Christ
- And ALLOWING THEIR LIVES to be TRANSFORMED and CHANGED into becoming more and more like Jesus!
The witness of the first Christians’ lives and their passion to share Christ’s Good News to all people began a movement that would change the world. The Roman Powers of the day would have laughed at the thought that this small band of Jewish men and women would amount to anything. Even their own Jewish leaders of the first century would have scoffed at the idea that this religious sect of believers in Jesus would last. And yet, a radical movement started and continues today! And through the witness of Christian communities throughout history, millions and billions of people have followed this way of life and discovered an incredible message of hope, joy, peace, power, and love!
Now, the early church wasn’t perfect. It was an imperfect group of men and women who came together and tried to live out the teaching of love, mercy, compassion, grace, forgiveness and healing which Jesus Christ proclaimed. The examples I offered at the beginning show the success of the early Christians. And yet, the Epistle Reading of today revealed that the first Christians were still human and, thus, failed at times. We could hear in today’s reading how after an initial ideal period, conflicts began to arise in the Church. The Greek-speaking Jewish Christians felt slighted by the Hebrew-speaking Jewish Christians when aid was distributed. What is so beautiful about this account, however, is that St. Luke isn’t afraid to record these problems in the book of Acts. He willingly shows the very human side of the Church and its struggles. St. Paul even continues this honesty in his epistles, especially in his letter to the Church in Corinth where more serious problems and challenges faced the first Christians.
The Church has never been a perfect community. It has always had, though, believers who strive to live a radical life in Christ. The early church strove to live out the teachings of Jesus in a very revolutionary manner. Christ’s teachings drastically changed their lives! His followers didn’t simply believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and then went on living their lives just like everyone else. NO! To become a follower of Jesus meant that everything in life would be measured according to His teachings of a new way of life. Christ’s call to become “perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect” was taken seriously. Thus, the first Christians lived lives that were quite different from those around them in the world.
Of course, there were problems within the early Church, and all Christians didn’t always live up to their ideals. The authentic followers of Christ, however, knew that they had to forgive one another. They had to show mercy to not only each other, but even to those outside their community of faith. When the Romans and Jews started persecuting them, and even killing them, they did not fight back, but instead forgave their persecutors and accepted martyrdom joyously. They tried to live out the Sermon on the Mount which Jesus taught them. They lived under the radical reign of the Kingdom of God, which has a quite different standard than that of the world. That is why they would sell their possessions and share with those in need. That is why they would risk their lives to travel the world over in order to share the Good News of Christ’s Resurrection and the presence of God’s Kingdom on earth here and now! They lived their lives as if their lives had been changed by Jesus! The fact was that their lives had been changed by their encounter with the risen Christ!!!
As we hear all this, we contemporary Christians need to ask ourselves if we are truly willing to follow the same path as the early Church. We Orthodox Christians like to say that we are a continuation of the early church, and yet, are we? Do we sincerely strive to live our lives in a manner similar to the first Christians? Do we allow Christ and His teachings to become the primary guiding force in our lives, or do we simply interpret His teachings in a way which will bless the lives we already choose to live?!? Do we strive to live the radical and oftentimes uncomfortable life of Christ – where we sell our possessions to share with those in need; where we sincerely forgive those who hurt us, even if they do something horrible to us; where we put our first and greatest effort in sharing God’s Good News with everyone we meet and making it a central goal to bring everyone into this special fellowship of the Church; where we ultimately strive to put the “other” before ourselves, to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to make this unconditional love the central characteristic that others will see in our lives?
The authentic Christian life is a very difficult one. It is an uncomfortable life that demands sacrifice. It means that we have to change our ego-centric ways and make them Christo-centric. It ultimately means that our lives will be different from those of most people in the world. But are we willing to be different? Are we willing to live under the reign of God instead of the influence of the world? Are we ready to follow the path which the early church walked, which was an extremely difficult one, but in the process was a road by which they would discover the incredible grace and power and joy and gladness which they experienced?
Let us reflect on the early church, and on our own lives, and decide which path we will walk.
Christ is Risen!