THE CHURCH”S HONEYMOON
Acts 2:42- 47, Psalm 23, John 10:1-10
April 28, 1996, by Tad Mitsui
In the beginning of married life, we only think of our spouse and do romantic and silly things. We call this period the honeymoon. Most of us move beyond it in a few years. But some people never do. Secretly we may envy them, because it is kind of nice. But we know that we all have to grow up sometime. Ideally, the initial love matures, and we grow wiser to avoid excess and to start looking outward. The Christian Church went through a phase similar to a honeymoon after the first Easter. But the church in Jerusalem never matured beyond the honeymoon phase and consequently almost disappeared, and the active Christian church developed outside of the Holy Land.
After the resurrection of Jesus Christ, his followers were so excited and happy that they got together all the time and talked about their encounters with the risen Jesus. It soon became their custom to come together weekly on the day of resurrection. This is how the Christian Church began to meet on Sundays, the day after the Jewish Sabbath when Jesus rose from the dead. When they met, they followed the custom of the Synagogue: reading the Scriptures, singing Psalms, and listening to the followers of Jesus tell stories of Jesus Christ. After that they always had a meal together to remember the last supper Jesus had with his followers.
In the beginning, they did not think that they were starting a new religion. So they met in the synagogues, and called themselves people who followed "the Way". Soon it became difficult to meet in the synagogues, because other Jews began to suspect that the people of the Way were practising heresy. Some fanatical scholars, like Saul – who later became Paul – began to persecute the Christians by harassing them, putting them into jails, and sometimes executing them for advocating blasphemy against Judaism.
So those who followed "the Way" began to live in the new way of life especially in and around Jerusalem. They began to live in the communes eating together and making each meal like Holy Communion, and sharing all earthly possessions. Archaeologists dug out the ruins of similar communities in Palestine. One of them was called the Essenes and is well known today, because of its likelihood of being a community where John the Baptist or even Jesus himself might have lived. The Essenes located their communities in the mountains and deserts, in order to safeguard the purity of their belief.
This communal living might have been necessary. It was too dangerous to live alone as Christians in a hostile environment. But it was not just due to a need for security that they lived like this. It was mainly because of their enthusiasm and passion for their belief. Perhaps it was excessive, but they were so happy to be together, sharing the knowledge that Christ had risen. They lived in ecstasy. It was their honeymoon in their new faith.
They believed that the way of loving that Jesus taught could only be put into practice through a total sharing. They believed that if they loved their brothers and sisters in faith, they should share everything they owned. So they abolished private property. Some people kept a few possessions for themselves secretly instead of giving them all up to the communities. But they were made to feel ashamed. The Bible recorded the story of a couple who did not give everything away and secretly kept a portion of their money. They died of a heart attack because their deception was exposed. Some people stopped working for living, and devoted themselves to a life of charity and prayer. Some of them even stopped paying taxes, because they believed that Christ would come soon and establish a new kingdom of God. So they were prosecuted for tax evasion by the Roman authorities. They may have been idealistic and their devotion touching, but they were naive and not very practical.
This is why the first Christians who lived in Jerusalem became very poor and destitute. Those Christians who lived outside of Palestine, in Turkey, Greece, North Africa, and in Italy had to support them by raising funds to help them. But many of the Jerusalem Christians remained the same and stubbornly stuck to their ways. They did not fully accept those later converts who were not Jews. They insisted that these Gentiles convert to Judaism first through circumcision before they became the people of the Way. They became a cosy little group, never changing their ways and not wanting to welcome newcomers. Because of this obstinate attitude, the Church in Jerusalem nearly disappeared. The active Church, in its stead, developed in North Africa – in Egypt and Ethiopia, in Asia Minor – in Turkey, and in Europe – in Greece and Italy.
This is a classic case of people who never grew up. They never moved beyond the honeymoon. They remained inward looking and exclusive, like a newly married couple. They did this in the name of Jesus Christ. Love that does not mature becomes stale and poisonous. Their "way" became a huge boulder that blocked the road to growth rather than a highway on which to journey to maturity. The way, like a road or a street, is useful only when it allows you to move and go somewhere. The Christian way is an avenue for a movement. It challenges us to grow and move with change.
There are two lakes in Palestine, Lake Galilee and Dead Sea, which are connected to one river system – the River Jordan. One is alive and the other is dead. One can drink water out of Lake Galilee; fish are plentiful. But the Dead Sea has no visible life form living in it. One can not even stay in the water more than a few minutes, because water is too salty. The lake, as its name implies, is dead. What makes them so different though both of them get the water from the same river? Lake Galilee takes water in and lets it flow out. So fresh water moves through it continually. On the other hand, the Dead Sea is located below the sea level, and water has no place to go; it sits stagnant and evaporates leaving chemicals behind. So the lake died and killed other living things. Christ”s way of life, the way of loving is like a flowing water. It involves constant movement – that movement allows life to grow and thrive. Change allows love to become more mature.
But how? John”s Gospel today gives a very interesting hint. A true guide who leads you to safety is compared to a shepherd, but the one who leads you astray is called a thief and a bandit. Shepherding and thieving are both ways to make a living. But a shepherd makes a living by looking after others. A shepherd lived with the animals rain or shine: the welfare of the animals was the welfare of the shepherd. Shepherd made a living by caring, loving, and sharing. We know a lot of people like that. They make decent living, but equally they give well. Thieves on the other hand make a living by exploiting others without giving back in return. They certainly aren”t concerned with looking after the welfare of the victims. Their goal in life is to look after themselves, and nobody else. Others are all potential targets for exploitation or enemies. Their goal in life is strictly taking, and absolutely no giving. This kind of living will eventually leads you to self-destruction.
Just like the love life of honeymoon eventually dies and becomes poisonous unless it matures, the church that remains inward looking concerned only with itself also dies. I believe that, like the hymn we used to sing in Sunday School, "There”s a church in the valley by the wildwood" language of the church says too often "Come, come, come," and not often enough "Go, go, go." It is good to create a lovely caring community. You have in large measures succeeded in making such a community in Howick United Church. I would much prefer to be here than in a large and prosperous downtown church with bells and whistles, a paid choir and a large salary. But we must keep growing up. We must remember to consider what to do and how to do it when we leave the church building, just as much as remembering to come together for worship and fellowship. Do not forget, our guide and our teacher is like a shepherd who calls us out to journey through green pastures and dark vales, as often as he brings us back to a comfortable home through his gate.
It is he who shares the honeymoon with us as well as calls us forward to a more mature love.