A Challenge from the Past

Friday, 13th June 2008 at 11:47 UTC Leave a comment

It was announced this week that archaeologists working in Rihab, Jordan, claim to have found wthe world’s oldest church known church to date. Reading the report on News.BBC, I was challenged by the thoughts I had about the life of that church, how it differs from today’s Church and today’s churches. What was it that made these people different from the people of today’s church? 

There can be no doubt that the early church was very different from our own. For a start, it wasn’t an institution in any way, shape or form. The services which have remained similar over the last 1500 years were not yet laid out on paper, let alone universalised. To the cessationists, people who believe that physical acts of the Holy Spirit ended with the creation of the cannonical bible, this was still the Holy Spirit’s time. And most importantly for myself, this was long before the yeast of imperial authorisation had set in – Christians had nothing to do with empire, they avoided it at all costs, seeking to create something of the Kingdom of heaven in the harsh political environment where they found themselves. This was Christianity long before the great-sell-out.

This church is said to have acted as both a place of worship and a home. A community of people lived here, long before community had come to mean institutionalised monasteries. They would probably have made eating together one of their most important rituals, from which many churches have got their highly refined “Communion” or “Mass”. The community probably shared everything they had, from their meagre possesions, to their personal experiences and worries, to a common vision.

But the community faced adversity. It was likely that those who founded this church were refugees fleeing persecution in Jerusalem. Their Christianity was a challenge to those in power. It preached that was someone greater than the Emperor, someone who might disagree with the Emperor, someone who’s Kingdom existed both everyone the Emperor ruled, and everywhere the Emperor didn’t, and who’s Kingdom was not focused on accumulation of power, but on justice, not on serving the highest, but the lowest, not on a rule of fear and repression, but a rule of love and freedom.

So many in today’s church are heard to talk of the need to return to the ways of the early church. We want to return to this perceived Garden of Eden from which our faith has come such a long way. Sadly, few are prepared to admit the exact chain of events leading to the Fall that has come between us and that vision of church in all its fullness. The church in Rihab (we shall assume the archaeologists are to be trusted) had not undergone the Great Sell-Out represented in the actions of Constantine; it hadn’t been consumed by the state around it, by power structures looking to extend their legitimacy, by the myriad consessions and capitulations to power, empire, militarism, and economic injustice.

The life of this church was hardly easy, the persecution was imense, but despite, or perhaps because, of that persecution, it made remained a credible expression of God’s kingdom far more than the church of today. We shouldn’t expect to see our churches return to an image of peaceful bliss if we really want to walk the path back to the beginnings of the church. We shouldn’t see persecution as an aim, but when we receive it, we shouldn’t be surprised.

And this shouldn’t just go for the kind of persecution the church traditionally fetishes, which aims to see Christians reject the existence and worship of God, but we (the Church) should see it as including the persecution we receive when we speak truth to power, when we point to the structural violence and injustices in our society, and when we seek to liberate people. Those in power will always turn to repression whenever a real attempt is made to bring freedom, and we should not shy away simply because that repression comes, but instead turn to our faith, much as these Christians did. For their gospel was in part a social gospel, a political statement, but never an involvement in Earthly politics.

If we are to seek out the vision and dynamism of the early church, we cannot do it whilst clinging to the contract that exists between the church and those in power. We must be prepared to be on the wrong side of the law, not simply to live outside of it, ignoring politician’s ‘earthly concerns’, focusing on our ‘heavenly concerns’ as has been the case in past generations. Dom Helder Camara said “When I feed the hungry they call me a saint, when I ask why the poor are hungry they call me a communist”. Perhaps it should be that “when I ask why anyone has the power to keep the poor hungry they call me an anarchist”. I digress somewhat…

Lets start naming the date when all this communal life and radical cooperative economics, this determination to follow God no matter what and to do so from the margins where he once served us, and lets start really seeking out what it was that enabled the early church to remain so dynamic, and lets do all that with courage to face the backlash, and determination to not let our faith become cushy. Even if our faith is seen as a liberal one, let that not be synonymous with lack of vision, and if it is a conservative faith, let that not be seen as an attempt to hold to the values of church-and-state, ordered-society, but to the values of that which came before all the ‘niceness’ of church-in-polite-society.


Entry filed under: Church, Culture, Freedom, News, Religion, Theology.

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