Like the Early Followers, Tell the Jesus Story
In the midst of my doctoral studies, I took a course, “The Christian Tradition.” The early martyrs, whom we hear about in the daily readings after Easter, intrigued me. In the face of death, these people stood stalwart, accepting that a proclamation of faith in Jesus of Nazareth would lead to being set ablaze, fed to animals, or (mercifully) beheaded. Yet the Gospel continued to spread. In fact, I found an article in The Wall Street Journal about the movie Paul, Apostle of Christ. The article cited a remarkable fact: when Paul died in A.D. 67, there were 2,500 Christians. By the year 350, there were 34 million (WSJ, 5/1/18). That gave me pause. In a time when you would be killed for professing faith in the Risen Jesus, the Good News spread, more people came to faith than left it, and the church flourished. Then Constantine came along and institutionalized the faith into religion and things have never quite been the same. It seems we might have been better off when we had to tell the story than when we were allowed to tell the story.
I remember in my readings for “The Christian Tradition” course studying the early church and its first members. In his book, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1, Justo González reminds readers that, “The earliest Christians did not consider themselves followers of a new religion” (González, 27). He repeats that sentiment more than half a dozen times in the pages that follow. I suppose this struck me not because it was new information but because it is often a misunderstanding among many of today’s faithful, who assume Jesus said, “Peter you are rock…” (Mt 16:18) and then finished the sentence with the command, “Now go put on your Alb and stole because you are the first pope.” In fact, González is clear:
All their lives they had been Jews and they still were. This was true of Peter and the twelve, of the seven, and of Paul. Their faith was not a denial of Judaism but was rather the conviction that the messianic age had finally arrived. . . The earliest Christians did not reject Judaism but were convinced that their faith was the fulfillment of the Messiah whom Jews over the ages had been anticipating (27).
With the influx of Gentile believers, we see the conversations unfold about how these new converts will be instructed, how they will be introduced to Judaism, and what, if any Jewish laws will be required of these non-Jews. The acceptance of Jews and subsequently of Christians – at least initially – by the Roman authorities is another misunderstanding. That the persecution of Christians led to the “consciousness of Christianity as a separate religion” (30) is ordinarily where most people pick up the story of the early church, perhaps because of Paul’s writing (see Acts 9:29, 2 Timothy 3:11) and because of the lure of the persecution stories that encourage saintliness and sacrifice. Still, go back to The Wall Street Journal article: the faith spread. That much is clear.
What intrigues me about this period of time was how the faith spread. Since written texts were in their early forms, the faithful depended on others to tell the stories of Jesus and his early band of followers orally. In addition, those early followers cared for one another: the orphans and widows were fed and protected, wages became communal as collections were taken and needs were met. It was, in essence, through storytelling and in taking care of the most vulnerable that the faith gained momentum.
González writes that the early Christian communities eventually separated their gatherings into two parts – readings and commentary and communion, focusing not on the events of what we now call Good Friday, but instead on the resurrection of Jesus and the “promises of which that resurrection was the seal” (108). Gonzalez writes, “A new reality had dawned, and Christians gathered to celebrate that dawning and to become participants in it” (108). The key word, for me, is “celebrate” and I am reminded of Pope Francis’ admonition in one of his homilies early in his pontificate, “Often Christians behave as if they were going to a funeral procession rather than to praise God, no?” as well as his call in Evangelii Gaudium: “Consequently, an evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!” (EG, 10) Somewhere along the lines – between those early Christian gatherings and today, we have lost the idea that Mass is a celebration, at least in many Catholic churches. Gonzalez speaks of that coming change and mentions the shift from communion to preaching and the influence of the Reformation, but I appreciate his focus on the “remarkable characteristics of those early communion services” (108). Even as the world around them was changing and the faithful were being fed to the animals (quite literally), there was a weekly celebration of joy and gratitude because Jesus had been raised from the dead and the implications of that event on the lives of the faithful were enormous.
As I reflect on this, I find myself thinking back to Pope Paul VI and Evangelii Nuntiandi and his charge: “Above all the Gospel must be proclaimed by witnesses” (EN, 21). How do I witness to my own children? How do I show them the Gospel each day? How do I show them that faith in the person of Jesus Christ leads to joy?
May we bravely witness to the Gospel this week, allowing others to see our lives as celebrations of resurrected joy.
This originally appeared on Patrick Donovan’s personal blog, Five Minutes on Monday.