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Five Top Things Early Christians Teach Us

Posted on: April 12, 2020

Category: Theology

Quest Thoughts: Top Five Things Early Christians Teach Us
There are two caveats to acknowledge before listing the top five things early Christians teach us.

The first is that early Christians did not call themselves Christians. The word Christian came into common use later in the third and fourth centuries. Conscious of this problem, I will use “early Christian(s)” and “Christ communities” in a synonymous way.

Secondly, the early Christ communities said a lot of things we cannot learn from. After all, they did live in the first and second centuries of the Roman Empire. For some things, like understanding human sexuality, their advice is not so good.

There are teachings, though, that we need to hear today—things that are as important as ever to hear. These are the top five things I believe early Christ communities teach us.
The equal sharing of goods is what makes a true community.
The earliest Christ communities shared food and goods with one another. The act of sharing was the act of participating in the Christ identity. Paul gets upset when wealthy members in Corinth decide to eat separately from poorer members (I Cor 11:18-22), leaving the poor to go hungry. The writer of Acts (2:44) ties faith to the common good. Luke attributes to Jesus the saying that if we really want to follow Jesus, we will sell all we have and give it to the poor (Luke 18:22). In our age of extraordinary separation between wealth and poverty, it would be amazing if Christians everywhere insisted on the equal sharing of goods.

Compassion rather than belief is the sign of spirituality.
Although it is easy to find places in the Bible, like Revelation, where God is vengeful, it is important to remember that the earliest Christians wrote from the point of view of the oppressed. The primary violence was the violence of Roman imperial power. Revelation is a reaction of imaginary revenge against that violence. However, it is extraordinary, in this context, that a lot of earliest Christian teaching is not about revenge but about compassion, forgiveness, and the courage to love your enemies. Several sayings attributed to Jesus relay these very themes: be compassionate as God is compassionate (Luke 6:36); forgive endlessly and exaggeratedly at a rate of seventy times seven (Matt 8:22); while loving your friends is something we all do, loving your enemies is what counts (Luke 6:32-36). Early Christ community members knew that belief is easy because it costs nothing, but compassion is a practice that in Roman times could cost your life.

Be in solidarity with those who society would shame.
Today, and roughly since the fourth century, the crucifixion of Jesus is regarded as a glorious and heroic sacrifice. The irony of God murdering God (Jesus) to forgive people is an insensible irony noticed by many but still part of Christian theology. At the time of the rise of Christianity, however, the first Jesus followers knew the cross was about public shame. The shame of Jesus on the cross was united with the shame of the nations defeated and humiliated by Roman imperial power. These two shames (of Jesus and of the nations) were both inflicted by Roman imperial power. The earliest Christians saw in the crucifixion of Jesus an act of solidarity with the shamed. Jesus was faithful to the intentions of God and in solidarity with the shamed. For Paul in particular, this made Jesus Israel’s light to the nations (gentiles). To be a follower of Jesus among the nations is to know that solidarity with the shamed is the message of the cross.

The refugee is my friend.
The Bible does not explicitly have the word refugee. It has “taking refuge” and “cities of refuge.” It also says things about sojourners, strangers, and foreigners, for which we can use the word refugee. The earliest Christians knew what it meant to be sojourners and foreigners; that is, they knew what it meant to be refugees. The main directive in the Torah is that a stranger in the land shall be treated as a native of the land (Lev 19:34). The act of receiving the stranger as a compatriot is part of loving your neighbor as yourself. You can hear this Torah lesson in several early Christian texts, such as Matt 25:25 (“When I was hungry, you gave me food”) and Gal 5:14 (“The Torah is fulfilled in one commandment, ‘love your neighbor as yourself’”). The Parable of the Good Samaritan makes this point but in reverse. In the parable, the enemy (Samaritan) loves you better than your compatriots and embarrassingly shows you what your own law (Torah) means. The earliest Christ communities in the Roman empire knew exactly what it meant to be strangers scattered in foreign lands, and they knew how to listen to the Torah.

Religion is not about truth, it’s about life.
The Jesus Seminar determined that many aphorisms and parables held the voiceprint of Jesus. By voiceprint they meant an identifiable rhetorical style. The voiceprint held reversals of expectation (surprise endings to stories or sayings), ironies (like the story of the pearl of great price in which you sell everything to get a pearl that becomes useless because it’s all you have), and hyperboles (like the amazingly festive behavior the father performs for the prodigal son only to reveal that the prodigal son gets nothing of the inheritance he had wasted). When we identify the voiceprint of Jesus and look at what he said, it turns out he said nothing about religion. Not a single aphorism or parable of the historical Jesus has anything to do with what we ought to believe about him or what he believes about himself. All the stories and aphorisms relate to life, to everyday life, looked upon from a different angle. This conclusion should say something stunning to Christians today. If Jesus had nothing to say about what we should believe, then it is not appropriate for Christians to worry about believing in Jesus either. If the focus is life and re-imaging life, then religion is not about truth claims but living examples. Christianity is about how you live. For the ancient folks, the point was how to live in the Roman empire. For us, it is how to live in the American empire and other would-be empires that define our world.
It seems strange to say that the earliest Christians can teach us important lessons about sharing, compassion, solidarity, love, and life. It seems strange because one would think that these are the natural elements of Christianity. They are things we should assume define Christianity. However, they do not define Christianity today or in its history beyond the second century, and this realization makes one wonder whether such a thing as Christianity still exists.

©By David Galston

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