THE CHURCH BEGAN AS A COMMUNE
ACTS 2:42 – 47, 4:32 – 37, 5:1 – 11, 6: 1 – 6
After the ecstatic euphoria on Pentecost five weeks after the Passover, many people who were present became convinced that Jesus was risen and was alive: He was indeed the Messiah Jews had been waiting for. They stayed together and organized themselves into communes. It was a necessary process for unorganized crowd to become a viable institution as the church. A big crowd often creates euphoric frenzy. I attended a meeting of eight thousand people once: the once in a decade World Council of Churches Assembly in 1983. Through two weeks of living together on an university campus with many inspiring speeches and motivational talks, music and singing, prayers and endless conversations in big and small groups, even a sceptic like me was swept away into an emotional fury .
It is up to us to decide if Pentecost was a work of a transcendental power like the Holy Spirit or a mass hysteria. I do not reject the legitimacy of such a collective phenomenon even if it could be termed as a emotional fury of the crowd. There is a place for a collective uplifting experience such as, dare I say, a rock concert. The one in Woodstock during the 1960’s became a turning point of Anti-Vietnam War movement. But if it is an authentic event that should evolve into a a long-lasting positive life force, the initial excitement has to be followed up by a long term process of a collective reflection and interaction. Lack of such a process leads a emotional high to disillusionment and disappointment; even to boredom. This is why an effect of the huge Evangelical assemblies often fizzles out. But Pentecost kicked off the two thousand year history of the Christian Church. So how did it all begin?
The first church was a communal living in a loving, sharing, and caring community. They regularly met to celebrate the risen Christ. It has become Sunday observance to celebrate the day Christ rose, the third day after the death on the cross. They told each other stories of Jesus in endless conversations while sharing food. They shared possessions also. Thus the first Christian Church was a commune. They gathered at the temple in Jerusalem to worship according to the traditional Jewish rites. Then, they went to the homes of members, who had big enough space to accommodate large number of people. They talked about the amazingly uplifting experience they just went through. At the temple, they were prohibited to preach about Jesus; his teaching was considered to be heretical by the establishment religious authorities. Therefore sermons were given in homes by Apostles who actually met and followed Jesus physically as disciples in his ministry . The sermons were stories of Jesus’ life and teaching, the collection of which eventually became the Gospels of the New Testament.
The church communes were made up of diverse peoples. Though the majority were Jewish, there were also many non-Jewish peoples who came from all regions of the Mediterranean world. In today’s terms they came from Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Greece, and even Italy, Spain, and islands of the Mediterranean sea. (2: 9-10) Among the Jews, there were at least three different kinds of them. A majority spoke Hebrew who lived mostly in Judea. But there were Jews from the northern countryside of Galilee including Jesus and most of the disciples. They spoke Aramaic. Also by then many Jews were already scattered throughout Mediterranean world and spoke Greek which was the universal language of the day like today’s English. They were also from different classes such as different income groups, and educated and uneducated. Furthermore, there were many non-Jews who did not follow Hebrew laws, therefore were disdained as being unclean. How could such a diverse group as that stay together?
In order for them to stay united as a coherent group, first they had to learn to live together overcoming the hurdles, suspicions, and even hostility the difference generates. First step was; they tried to overcome the different degree of wealth. They brought all their wealth together and put it into the common purse to share; many even selling property. They ate together at the same table. That table evolved into Communion Service. They did this in the homes of relatively well to do members, such as the mother of John Mark, the writer of a Gospel (Acts 12:13). Some faith groups like Amish and Hutterites maintain this life-style. This regiment must have been strictly observed judging from the severity of punishment imposed on the cheaters. (4:32-37 and 5:1 – 11)
More difficult was difference in language and culture. It seems that the Jews who spoke Hebrew dominated because there were more of them. So those who were in minority unfamiliar with the Orthodox Jewish customs were looked down upon. The first target of discrimination were Greek speaking Jews: it is just like people who don’t speak English in our community. They were often neglected in the daily distribution of provision. Also sometimes, poor people and widows missed the meals at the common table: Paul reported that by the time the poor and widows came to the table there was no food left though early arrivals were well fed, even drunk with wine. Some others were looked down upon because they did not observe kosher, eating prohibited food. Something had to be done.
There was a need for the designated persons to keep the order so that everybody was treated equally. So Apostles, whose job was preaching and teaching, selected seven persons to look after the practical aspect to keep of the organization. Hence there appeared leaders who attended the administration of the order of the church. In fact, those seven proved themselves to be most dedicated and faithful people to the extent that the first person who died for his faith was from this group of seven – Stephen. (6:1-6)
Thus developed three essential components of a sustainable institution in the first church: Emotion, Reason, and Order.
– Emotional elements began with passion of Pentecost, and nurtured by empathetic and caring communes.
– Reason was maintained in teaching and preaching.
– Order was overseen by the two groups of leaders: twelve Apostles who looked after the spiritual aspect of the communal living and seven Serving Elders who took care of the practicals.