“Christianity began in Palestine as an experience, it moved to Greece and became a philosophy, it moved to Italy and became an institution, it moved to Europe and became a culture, and it moved to America and became a business! We’ve left the experience long behind.”
Paul Smith, author of Integral Christianity
Indeed, whatever else church is, it’s not a business.
For today’s Lenten meditation, here’s an overview of how the first Christians did church from the Quaker Richard Foster, the wonderful spiritual writer of many fine spiritual books. (Click here for more on Foster.)
And some thoughts for the day in mulling on Foster’s overview that follows might be:
– “How is my church doing Christianity? How am I, as part of the church, stacking up to those early, counter-cultural, radical-love, pacifist Christians?
– What extra mile might I walk for the needy and how might I get my church perhaps more involved in serving others?
– What might I, and my church, sacrifice on behalf of those living on the streets and homeless shelters; of those in halfway houses for prisoners who need second chances to get their lives right by getting right with God; of the many unemployed out there struggling just to survive another day, much less manage to get to a job interview; of forgotten children in orphanages and; of those families of those in hospitals who are struggling to survive while the breadwinner is laid low by illness or injury . . . .
and on behalf of those who are simply in need of food and clothing who are not far from wherever you are right this minute?
Foster’s overview follows:
In the period following the Apostolic Age, there was an exuberant caring and sharing on the part of Christians that was unique in antiquity.
Julian the apostate, an enemy of Christianity, admitted that “the godless Galileans fed not only their (poor) but ours also.”
Tertullian wrote that the Christians’ deeds of love were so noble that the pagan world confessed in astonishment, ‘See how they love one another.’ Exactly what is it that these Christians did which elicited such a response from their enemies?
“There was, first of all, an exceptional freedom to care for the needs of one another in the believing community. The Didache admonished Christians: ‘Thou shalt not turn away from him that is in want, but thou shalt share all things with thy brother, and shalt not say that they are thine own.’
“By A.D. 250 Christians in Rome were caring for some fifteen hundred needy people. In fact, their generosity was so profuse that Ignatius could say that they were ‘leading in love,’ and Bishop Dionysus of Corinth could note that they were sending ‘supplies to many churches in every city. . . . ‘
“We gain a helpful glimpse into the caring Christian community from I Clement, ‘Let everyone be subject to his neighbor. . . Let the rich man provide for the wants of the poor; and let the poor man bless God, because He hath given him one by whom his needs may be supplied.’ Tertullian catalogued a long list of groups that were cared for by the Christian believers. . .
“Christians also provided for those who lost their jobs because of their faith in Christ. It was assumed, for example, that an actor who became a Christian, and had to give up his profession because of its involvement in pagan mythology, would be cared for by the church. . .
“But their joyful sharing was not confined to Christians. . . . Bishop John Chrysostom witnessed: ‘Every day the Church here feeds 3,000 people. Besides this, the church daily helps provide food and clothes for prisoners, the hospitalized, pilgrims, cripples, churchmen and others. When epidemics broke out in Carthage and Alexandria, Christians rushed to aid all in need. . . .
“These Christians genuinely believed that God was the owner and giver of all good gifts. Their generosity was an imitation of God’s generosity. They were free from anxiety because they knew that tomorrow was in God’s hands. They lived in simplicity.
“Perhaps no one has captured the exuberant spirit of simple caring and sharing better than the Christian philosopher Aristides, whose words (written in A.D. 125) are so moving that they are best quoted in full:
They walk in all humility and kindness, and falsehood is not found among them, and they love one another. They despise not the widow, and grieve not the orphan. He that hast distributeth liberally to him that hath not. If they see a stranger, they bring him under their roof, and rejoice over him as if he were their own brother: for they call themselves brethren, not after the flesh, but after the Spirit of God; but when one of their poor passes away from the world, and any of them see him, he provides for his burial according to his ability; and if they hear that any of their number is imprisoned or oppressed for the name of their Messiah, all of them provide for his needs. . . .
“And if there is among them a man that is needy and poor, and they have not an abundance of necessaries, they fast two or three days that they may supply the needy with their necessary food.”
Richard Foster concludes this run-down with these words:
“This model of simplicity speaks to our condition. How desperately we need today to discover new creative ways of caring and sharing with any in need.”
We “desperately” need to discover new and creative ways to do ministry with (not for!) those need.
Can we get a big amen to that!