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The Beginnings of the Way

The Early Christian Church

The Beginnings of the Way
Sunday, April 26, 2015

As we saw in the previous weeks on Jesus and Paul, Christianity first emerged not as a new religion, but as a reform and sect of Judaism. Wherever Paul, Peter, Mark, Thomas, and other early missionaries traveled, they formed small communities of believers in “The Way,” a movement that emphasized Jesus’ teachings, death, and resurrection as the path to transformation. Members of The Way clearly believed that Jesus was the “Messiah” (although that had many different meanings). Gradually the movement grew and took on a life of its own, welcoming non-Jews as well as Jews, becoming more inclusive and grace-oriented, and surely less tribal, until it eventually called itself “catholic” or universal. By AD 80, there were Christians as far away as India and France.

The “Early Church” period (the five hundred or so years following Jesus’ death and resurrection) was a time of dramatic change in culture, politics, and economy for the ancient Mediterranean world. All of these changes affected the development of the fledgling religion, shaping liturgy, rituals, and theology. Diana Butler Bass writes, “for all the complexity of primitive Christianity, a startling idea runs through early records of faith: Christianity seems to have succeeded because it transformed the lives of people in a chaotic world” (A People’s History of Christianity). During this time, Christianity was not so much about doctrines or eternal salvation, but about how to live a better life here and now, within the “The Reign of God.”

From the Romans’ perspective, the Christian sect was radical because it encouraged alternative behaviors that were both attractive and threatening to the worldview of empire—rather than acquiring wealth, sharing possessions equally; rather than segregation, living together with people of different ethnicities and social classes.

Early Christianity, one of the key building blocks in my lineage of faith, is largely unknown and of little interest to most Western Christians. The very things the early Christians emphasized—such as the prayer of quiet, the Trinity, divinization, universal restoration, and the importance of practice—have been neglected, to our own detriment. As I have said in other places, every time the church divided, it also divided up Christ, and both sides of the divide were weaker as a result. As formally happened in AD 1054—the schism between what are now the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches—we, in effect, excommunicated one another, and we were all losers. That is what dualistic thinking always does.

During the next few weeks I’ll try to reclaim some of these forgotten pieces of the Christian tradition for our wholeness and blessing. We are still carrying the DNA of our great, great grandparents of faith, and knowing that can give us deep identity and meaning. Not knowing this heritage will allow you to cling to superficial Christian distinctions that emerged much later, and largely as historical accidents.

Gateway to Silence:
Teach me Your way.

Adapted from the Mendicant, Vol. 5, No. 2

Image credit: 6th c. mosaic (detail), Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, Tabgha, Israel.
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