Who are these Christians?
September 4: Proper 18:
Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
Who are these Christians?
These followers of The Way?
They act in strange but unmistakable ways.
One Roman critic complained, “They spit on our gods and laugh at our sacred rites, despise our civic titles and robes of honor, while they themselves go around half naked.” (1)
Lucian, another critic in the second century added, “They scorn all possession without distinction and treat them as common property.” (2)
And yet another decried, “Your whole religion is aimed at the gullible, the uneducated and the poor.
“Your converts are slaves, women, and children.
“You meet in secret, in private houses, with low-class workers…, yokels,…” (3)
“All drawn from the illiterate dregs of the populace.” (4)
“And you get ahold of children … and some weak-minded women, and try to subvert them.
“It’s shocking [that] you tell them [to] obey Jesus Christ and not their schoolteachers or fathers.”
“You Christians are just a rabble of profane conspirators bound together by nighttime meetings, ritual fasts, and disgusting feasts.” (5)
Who were these people?
Ok, let’s take a step back and remember that becoming a Christian in the first two or three centuries of the common era was not at all like becoming a Christian today.
By the second century, a person who wanted to join a Christian community would first have to prove that they could actually live as a Christian—follow the moral and ethical demands of the Christian life, before they were even allowed into the community.
They had to prove that they could follow, what one early document (The Didache) called “the way of life” which meant following, quite literally, the commands to bless those who curse you, love those who hate you, turn the other cheek, give to everyone who asks, practice giving first-fruits (a tithe) to the church or to the poor, a practice a higher standard of sexual morality than the rest of the world and to “share all things with your brother, and do not say that they are your own.”
Of course proving that you could follow “the way of life” meant also proving that you were capable of turning away from “the way of death,” which meant avoiding things like: murder, adultery, lust, but also things like “loving vanities, pursuing revenge, not pitying a poor man,” and being an “advocate for the rich.” Any of those things would keep you from being even considered.
Now, if you agreed to adhere to all of that, you would probably be enrolled in a three year process, that would give you time to make the lifestyle changes that were required.
You might have to change jobs.
Sculptors, and painters, had to stop making idols (which in the Roman empire was big business), gladiators or anyone who taught gladiators had to quit.
Soldiers had to swear not to kill.
City magistrates had to find other work.
Actors (always suspect) had to give up their craft.
Magicians, astrologers, interpreters of dreams, were rejected outright. (6)
For three years, you would be instructed in and had to live the moral life of strict self-discipline and generous behavior before they were even allowed to even see, let alone participate in the Eucharist.
So these sayings of Jesus’ that ring so harsh in our ears, and cause dis-ease in our hearts…
“hate father and mother…hate life itself”
“carry the cross…”
“give up all your possessions…”
They all made perfect sense to first and second century Christians, especially the Gentiles that Luke was writing for.
Because they had given up family—Christians were often buried with other Christians and not with their families…
They had given up livelihoods, given up their possessions. They had died and were buried with Christ in the common pool of baptism…
And they lived as a group set apart, and always somewhat at risk of pushing the powers that be a little too far, into persecution.
These were the people of whom it was said, “They love all men, and are persecuted by all…They are poor and make many rich.” (7)
These are the people who had calculated the incredibly steep cost of discipleship and nevertheless had decided to follow Jesus.
And one of the questions that has always fascinated me, given all of this historical context, is “why?”
Why would anyone put themselves through that?
What was so compelling—what is so compelling—about being Christian?
Eternal salvation? Fair enough.
But the way to salvation was not simply accepting Jesus into your heart and then carrying on as if nothing had really changed.
The way to salvation was not just agreeing with some doctrinal proposition—remember there was very little doctrine in the early centuries, and one was only taught about the mysteries of things like sacraments, and the Trinity, after that three year process that led to your baptism.
So what was it?
Between 164—180 CE a great epidemic known as the Plague of Galen swept the Roman Empire killing hundreds of thousands.
Christians across the empire tended to the sick.
“Because they did not fear death,” writes one historian, “Christians stayed behind in the plague-ravaged cities while others fled. “Their acts of mercy extended to all the suffering regardless of class, tribe, or religion, and created the conditions in which others accepted their faith.” (8)
Doctrines like the Trinity and Incarnation were disputed for centuries, but no one disagreed on the absolute necessity of Christians practicing hospitality.
In addition to tending the sick, ordinary Christians opened their homes, provided shelter for widows and orphans, rooms for itinerant missionaries…they provided meals for the poor, and hosted funeral banquets.
One traveler reported on the extravagance of Christian hospitality saying, “when [the Christians] realized that foreign brethren were arriving they poured out…like a swarm of bees and ran to meet us with delight…many of them carrying containers of water and of bread. … They welcomed us…led us into the church and washed our feet one by one.”
He concluded, “What can I say that would do justice to their humanity, their courtesy, and their love? Nowhere have I seen such love flourish so greatly.” (9)
Why would people convert to Christianity? Because, it was among Christians that people saw an abundance of hope and humanity and love. Because, in the early Christian communities people saw mutual love, support, and care for all.
They saw people who truly practiced what they preached.
In a world of intense social stratification, they saw communities of economically and socially diverse people gathered together and sharing what they had…
They saw people who really lived transformed lives, who had given up family, any number of possessions, carried their crosses…
People became Christian, because, as Diana Butler Bass puts it, “Christians did risky, compelling, and good things that helped people.” (10)
People were attracted to Christianity, and became Christians, not because they were persuaded by intellectual or philosophical arguments…
And not because of the incredibly beautiful liturgy, (no one except Christians were allowed to see that)…
And not because of all the wonderful programs Christians had to offer them…
People became Christians because of the risky, compelling things to make the world just a little better that they saw Christians doing and they wanted to be part of that.
Another historian says, “Early Christian communities were so attractive and morally compelling that individuals risked their relationships, their livelihoods, even their mortal existence to belong.” (11)
Oh, but that was then and this is now…but I wonder if there isn’t a lesson in here for us 21st century Christians. Those of us who know how to count the cost, but don’t like having our faith show too much in public.
There’s been plenty of evidence for a decade or more that one of the main reasons people give up on Christianity is “too many Christian doing un-Christian things” Too many not walking the talk.
So here’s a question and a challenge for you as we get ready to enter the fall where our focus will be on “practicing our faith”:
What risky, faithful, compelling things can you do in your daily life that will let people know without a doubt that you are a follower of Jesus Christ?
What morally compelling acts of radical hospitality, or extravagant generosity, or prayerful engagement can you (or do you) engage in, not because you’re a nice person, but specifically because you are a Christian?
Because you strive to follow in the way of a servant/king who demands that we give away our gifts: our talents, our treasures, our possessions, our lives, our all—Demands that in order to be his disciple we must follow his example of self-giving love?
I pray that as we continue to gather together here, and share our spiritual practices and our spiritual journeys, God will deepen our faith and give us the courage to extend our Christian witness, so that we can grow more and more into a risky, morally compelling community that helps people and attracts them by what we do here and in the world…
So that everyone will say of us, “We know they are Christians, because, “‘Nowhere have we seen such love flourish so greatly?’”
(1) Accusations made against Minucius Felix in his dialogue, Octavius 8. quoted in Hopkins, Keith A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity. New York: Plume, 2001. p. 209.
(2) Quoted in Bass, Diana Butler, People’s History of Christianity, New York: HarperCollins, 2009 p. 66
(3) Origen, Against Celsus, quoted in Hopkins. p. 211
(4) Hopkins, 209
(6) Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition quoted in White, James. Documents of Christian Worship: Descriptive and Interpretive Sources. Edinburgh: T&T Clark. 1992. p. 151f.
(7) Epistle to Diognetus, quoted in Lyman, Rebecca, Early Christian Traditions Cambridge: Cowley Publications. 1999. p. 70.
(8) Butler Bass, Diana. People’s History of Christianity. New York: HarperCollins. 2009. p. 60.
(9) Ibid p. 64
(10) Ibid p. 60
(11) Kujawa-Holbrook, Sheryl A. and Fredrica Harris Tompsett. Born of Water, Born of Spirit: Supporting the Ministry of the Baptized in Small Congregations: Henderson: Alban Institute, 2010. p. 68.