During this Season of Pentecost we remember the early days of Christ’s Church, but often forget that God had a community of faith before the gift of the Holy Spirit to the followers of Jesus on the Day of Pentecost. There was the covenant community of God’s called and chosen people in Old Testament times, beginning with God’s promise to Abraham, the Exodus, the giving of the Law, the Levitical priests who were set apart to minister in the sanctuary – the “tabernacle” in the midst of the sanctuary during their wilderness wanderings, in search of the land God had promised to give to the descendants of Abraham) – Sabbath observances, the Passover, rituals, offerings, appointed feasts and festivals, life in a new land, sacred historical writings, judges, kings, the building of a temple, prophets and prophetical books including the foretelling of God’s Messiah – promises fulfilled with the coming of the Eternal Christ into the world in human form as the Word made flesh (John 1:14; Philippians 2;6-9), in the person of the historical Jesus, “crucified, dead, and buried,” then raised from the dead as the resurrected and glorified Christ who had promised to build His Church (Matthew 16:18), establishing a “new covenant,” a new covenant community (Luke 22:14-20) – a promise that was not only fulfilled but “sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13) on the Day of Pentecost.
It is important to understand the continuity of the story, the story of salvation, the one story of the mighty acts of God in history (i.e. His-story), recorded in the two volumes of Scripture, the Old and New Testaments, a library of 66 books that Christians have traditionally considered their “authority for faith and practice” (i.e. the practice of our faith), the sole basis for orthodox Christian doctrine, “sola scriptura” (the words used in the Reformed tradition, which is my own Presbyterian and Calvinistic faith tradition), the sole basis and authoritative guide for teaching, preaching, and guiding God’s people into an understanding of all spiritual truth, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. However, like all Christian traditions, we in the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition have not always been successful at preventing tradition from limiting the authority of Scripture. This has always been a danger in calling upon the people of God to “keep the faith,” even from Old and New Testament times (Matthew 15:1-9). Jesus confronted the Pharisees of His day with this danger by asking them “Why do you break the commandments of God for the sake of your traditions?”
I can only speak authoritatively about my own tradition. We Presbyterians have a Book of Order and a Book of Confessions, which are designated “subordinate standards” (i.e. less authoritative for the church than canonical Scripture), but some Presbyterians obviously take these volumes that form the “Constitution” of the Presbyterian Church (USA) more seriously than some scriptures they have chosen to interpret in the light of our Book of Order, rather than vice versa. Dr. James A. Brashler, Professor Emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia has written: “Some would argue that our reliance on creeds and our Book of Order comes perilously close to putting tradition above Scripture.” Why? Because, as Dr. Brashler says, “… deep differences about how to interpret and apply Scripture have divided Christians, just as they divided God’s chosen people, the Jews (i.e. in Old Testament times). The Word of God must be taught and practiced by fallible human beings who are prone to hear and see what they want to see and hear in Scripture.”
This is true with what Christ’s Church should consider priorities for ministry and mission, especially when it comes to the social dimensions of the Gospel – practicing God’s call for justice and righteousness, for defending the rights of the poor and powerless, for combating inequality in all of its forms, including non-acceptance of gender equality, domestic abuse, racism, and every kind of violence. This brings us back to the theme of this post; AN UNCOMMON COMMUNITY: A FELLOWSHIP THAT IS LIKE NO OTHER (i.e. when the Body of Christ is functioning properly, as Christ intends). That is when Christ’s Church is healthy, taking all the “one another” passages in the New Testament seriously, thus making it different from any other community of faith, a fellowship interpreted by love, an outpost of the kingdom of God on earth, a visible demonstration of the kind of life God desires for his entire human family in this broken and fragmented world.
The Apostle Paul was able to preach the Gospel not only to his Jewish brethren, but also to the Gentiles from whom they were estranged, separated, and alienated (Ephesians 2:12). He was called to proclaim the “Good News” of the Gospel of reconciliation, saying “Now in Christ Jesus you who were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For He is our peace, who has made us both one (i.e. both Jews and Gentiles), and has broken down the dividing walls of hostility…that He might create in Himself one new body through the cross…So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets…Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together, and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:13-16, 19-22).
In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke, the faithful historian of the Early Church, tells us how this Good News was lived out, incarnated, demonstrated in the shared life of believers in the Apostolic Church (Acts 2:42-47): “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (“didache” – instruction, discipling, nurturing) and fellowship (“koinonia” – togetherness, community, that which they had “in common”), to the breaking of the bread (i.e. celebration of the Lord’s Last Supper – services of loving remembrance, and “agape” feasts, a “common meal”, table fellowship, times of sharing, caring, loving one another) and the prayers (offering prayers to God the Father in the name of Jesus). All who believed were together and had all things in common (Acts 4:32-35); they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need (i.e. without favoritism or partiality, “need based” caring and compassion). Day by day they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home (“house churches”), eating their food with glad and generous hearts (with joy, generosity, and thanksgiving), praising God and having the good will of all the people (with one spirit, spiritual worship, as one Body of Christ); And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-35,). IS IT ANY WONDER?
Jesus had told His disciples, “He who is the greatest among you will be the servant of all” (Mark 10:44) – “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12) – “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last” (Mark 10:31) – “The Gentiles lord it over one another, but it shall not be so among you” (Luke 22:25) – “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:35). The Apostle Paul, the master interpreter of the mind of Christ called upon all followers of Jesus to “…be like-minded, having the same love, being one in purpose and spirit. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others…Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:2-5).
It is no wonder that the Early Church grew at such a phenomenal rate, or that one of the greatest persecutors of the followers of Jesus exclaimed, “Behold how these Christians love one another.” According to Luke, “…three-thousand persons were baptized and added” to the Church in one day (Acts 2:41), and that growth continued in the days, months, and years following the Day of Pentecost – a mighty movement of the Holy Spirit that was only THE BEGINNING OF A GREAT HARVEST OF SOULS THAT HAS CONTINUED UNTIL NOW, AND WILL NEVER END UNTIL CHRIST COMES AGAIN, when “…every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). Why? Because that kind of Christianity is contagious, wherever it is witnessed and experienced in this world. So let us pray:
“O holy flame of God now burning,
You are the power of Christ returning,
You are the answer to our yearning.
So, come, Lord Jesus, come”