The early Church as our model
(Readings: Acts of the Apostles 2:42-47; 1 Peter 1: 3-9; John 20:19-31.)
Introduction to Mass
Today, and over the next few Sundays, the readings at Mass all describe the beginnings and the growth of the Christian community, the Church. Hearing about the Church's origins isn't just a history lesson, of course - it's a chance for us as the Christian community now to learn from that very early period when the experience of Jesus' Resurrection was still very immediate and powerful to the people who witnessed it.
So as we come together now as God's family, with confidence let us ask the Father's forgiveness, for he is full of gentleness and compassion.
During the six or seven weeks of the Easter Season, the readings for mass on Sundays all come from the period of the first communities of Christians. There's no Old Testament reading. All the readings are from the New Testament: the Acts of the Apostles, St. Peter's letters, the gospels themselves of course. All these writings were composed during the formative years of the Church's life.
And as well as being the subject of all the readings over the Easter season, the early church is also something that a lot of Christians today have found to be an attractive ideal and an attractive model, for our church life today.
Partly, I think, there's been a tendency to think of the Catholic Church - in the past at any rate - as a sort of huge institution, with strict or even inhuman rules, a rigidly-ordered hierarchy and so on, and compared with that the early church can seem very warm and loving and inviting - no inequalities, everyone sharing everything - a place where a bunch of new age hippies just hung out being all free and spontaneous with each other. Perhaps some aspects of St. Luke's description of Christian community life in the first reading encourages that sort of image!
It's possible, in other words, to have a slightly caricatured idea of what the early Christians were like. But even if we put that aside, I would argue that there are still some very good reasons for looking at the early church as an example and model and ideal for our church life now.
And in my opinion there are a few things about the way that the first Christians saw themselves that we can learn from, and a few things that we can imitate.
The first thing is: the early Christians saw themselves as a small minority in a corrupt society. They were very conscious that there was a big difference between the moral values, and the ideas about happiness, and priorities in life that were commonplace in society at large, and the demands that were made on them as disciples of Christ.
And because they saw themselves as a small minority, they had no illusions about having a big influence in society, or transforming society as a whole. Their idea was more that the Church was an alternative to the majority values.
The short letter of Jude, for example, talks about new members of the Church being saved by being snatched from the fire - in other words, joining the Church meant being snatched from the fire of sinful ways of living and the corrupt state of pagan society, and becoming a member of an alternative community instead.
The second thing about the early Church follows on from that. They were in earnest about what they believed, their standards were high, the demands of membership of the Christian community were high.
The Christians always welcomed new converts, but they didn't go out of their way to attract them. There was no propaganda activity, no Alpha courses or anything corresponding to that sort of thing. Before anyone was baptised they had to wait three years, and during that three years they were introduced to the beliefs and practices and moral teaching of the Church.
They didn't make it easy for new members to join. If you were a soldier, for example, you couldn't become a Christian - not because of any objection to fighting, but because you were a servant of the pagan state and the pagan emperor. If you were an actor or an actress, you couldn't become a Christian, because many typical theatrical productions were too immoral for Christians to take part in. (I know the Archbishop of Canterbury said he didn't think much of Footballer's Wives on ITV: maybe some things haven't changed very much in two thousand years!)
Writing about the attitude of the early Christian communities one historian said:
"The Church did not want mere half-Christians. She preferred to remain small in numbers rather than to be unfaithful to her principles or to endanger them. Many who could not muster the required strength to make such a decision must have gone away sad".
Today, in my opinion, and you might agree with me, we find ourselves in circumstances that are similar in many respects to the circumstances that the first followers of Christ found themselves in.
My conclusion, reading these passages of the New Testament this Sunday, is that instead of being desperate to be relevant; instead of dreaming up elaborate - and often expensive - "pastoral plans" that never seem to make an impact beyond small circles of already committed people; instead of trying to serve up religion as entertainment and bringing in the techniques of the business world and the media world to so many aspects of our mission; maybe we should take a leaf out of the early church's book:
be content to remain small in numbers, concentrate on being faithful to our own values and our own Christian way of living, and let our example attract other people who genuinely feel drawn to do the same.