Lessons from the Early ChurchMay 23rd, 2012
When I was a high school teacher I taught Church history to a lot of sophomores. One of the things I did to mix things up was to re-enact the early Church. Students could self select themselves into three groups. One was the prayer group, and they planned a prayer service for the class. Another was the law and order group which was charged with constructing guidelines for the Christian community. Then there was the evangelization team, which sent “Paul and Barnabas” on some pretend missionary journeys to other classrooms to gather converts. And they got a lot of them. Of course, I think those kids just wanted to be set free from their classes, and also they were promised a signing bonus.
Now, years later, as I move through the Easter season reflecting on stories about the first Christian Community from Acts of the Apostles, I am reminded of that classroom activity and the lessons I learned from it.
First, like my sophomores, the early Church didn’t seem to know what they were doing either. Today we have a structure and years of history, but our beginning is rooted in people just fumbling around trying to figure things out, stepping out into the unknown, and trusting each other as well as their experience of Jesus and his immense love for them.
Second, doing that exercise was really unitive for the class – Paul and Barnabas were called by those names for the rest of the year, and to this day I can’t remember their real names. They are Paul and Barnabas. We really did form a community, and for the rest of the year we grew together in our faith. It may have been similar for the real early Church – slugging it out over issues, gaining new members, and praying together formed them into a people. Even when various groups within the church are in disagreement with each other today, there is still a commandment to genuinely love each other. “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you” (Jn 15:12). You know, it can sound sentimental, but that commandment is hard. Thomas Aquinas defines love as willing the good of another. That’s easy when it’s someone my emotions help me to like, but it’s very hard to will the good of another person who challenges or annoys me. You probably won’t find a valentine that says, “Love is willing the good of another and I will your good, Valentine,” but that’s what love in the Christian community is supposed to look like.
Third – when the classroom full of new converts gets too rowdy, send them back to class. The Christian community is too dynamic to be contained. We have too much Spirit! We must go to the ends of the earth, to fumble with how to live Christianity in our ever-changing world, stepping out into the unknown, continuing to pray together, trusting Jesus and each other, and ultimately loving one another as Jesus loved us.