Sunday, March 12, 2017

Socialists and the Early Church

The seeds of the Catholic Church were planted in Palestine. They managed to grow despite ferocious persecution and even gained the respect of their persecutors.

Acts2:42-47 gives a description of the early Christian community which could be fairly described as socialist. All goods were held in common and property was sold to help the poor. Selfishness was not allowed. Although they were subject to persecution they still saw themselves as a part of the community and were daily attracting more followers from that community (Acts2:47). In the nature of things, prior to the evangelism of St Paul, the first Christians mainly came from the Jewish tradition.

While the early Church was able to recruit from the community, the rich and powerful regarded them as a threat. Jesus advised his apostles that it was as hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom as it was for a camel to pass the eye of a needle. (Mark 10:25). He emphasised that those who would be great must act as humble servants (Mark 10:43-45). This was a concept rightly feared by those in power – it meant turning the world upside-down.

Moreover, He did not just put these dangerous ideas in words. An example of this is the narrative which appears in all four Gospels ( Mark 11:15–19, Matthew 21:12–17, Luke 19:45–48, John 2:13–16). Jesus casts out the profiteers from the temple which he refers to as “My father's house” (John 2:16). The Chief Priests wanted to kill him but thought him too popular (Luke 19:48). 

We live in a world in which Christians are still persecuted for their beliefs – for example by ISIL in Iraq. Nevertheless for the most part to be a follower of Christ in a civilised country does not carry the same high probability of martyrdom as it did for the early Church.

There was initially a continued failure to understand Christ on the part of the apostles. They did not see beyond “restoring the Kingdom of Israel” as the goal of Christians. Jesus, on the contrary, told them they would have to take the message to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). By definition, that would involve turning to the Gentiles as well as the Jews.

Acts 1:26 refers to a practice of the early Church which seems very strange to 21st century Christians. There were two nominees to take the place of Judas. Peter did not assert his authority to give a casting vote but the apostles drew lots and the lot fell to Mathias. It was stressed that both nominees had a long history with the apostles (Acts 1:21).

Peter does assert his authority on the day of Pentecost. He appeals first to the devout Jews by quoting David's revelation concerning the Messiah. (Acts 2:25-28) and he addresses them as 'fellow Israelites' (Acts 2:29). However, he is already talking of the wider mission of the Church when he talks about spreading the Good News around the world.(Acts 2: 39)
Moreover, the next incident recorded was Peter's healing of a lame beggar (Acts 3: 1-10). At this stage, Peter is beginning to look very like the rock on which the Church will be built rather than the vacillating doubter portrayed in Luke 22:54-62. Under Peter's leadership, it is likely that the Church was more self-confident than before. After all, 3000 people had been baptised and he had demonstrated his power to heal the sick.

Peter's appeal to the witnesses is couched in terms of Old Testament prophecy (Acts 3: 24-26) which would appeal to an audience of devout Jews. Although Peter holds them collectively responsible for the Crucifixion, their sins can be washed away through Christ.

The name of Ananias was to become a byword for dishonesty. The story of Ananias and his wife Sapphira is a fair indication of the attitude of the Church towards selfishness. When questioned by Peter both of them lied (Acts 5:1-11) and both of them died. They had a free choice as to whether to give the price of the land which they had sold to the Church (Acts 5:4) but their attempt to have it both ways by lying about the price was construed as lying to the Holy Spirit, lying to God.

The same point was made in a backhanded way by the Pharisee called Gamaliel who asserted that if the Church was indeed a man-made institution then it would crumble of its own accord but that if the Sanhedrin opposed the Church and Jesus Christ was the son of God then the Sanhedrin would be in conflict with God. (Acts 5:34-39)

The appointment of the seven men of good reputation to oversee the welfare of widows in the Church was an indication of the increasing emphasis on integrating the Hellenists and Hebrews (Acts 6:1-6).

The martyrdom of  St Stephen would have been both a shock and an inspiration to the Church. His accusers from the Synagogue of Freedmen were bearing false witness in  violation of the Law despite claiming to adhere to it. Stephen's martyrdom would have brought home to every member of the Church how great was the danger they faced. Their opponents were capable of abandoning their own Law in order to strike blows against the Church.  On the other hand, St Stephen's faith and courage in adversity and the way he forgave his enemies (Acts 7:60) would have been a shining example to them. 

The subsequent persecution of Christians by Saul proved to be counterproductive. (Acts 8:4) The Christian community was scattered but wherever they went they spread the Good News. Evil is unavailing. A bad deed such as the persecution of Christians could lead to a good consequence, the spreading of the Gospel.

Christians have often been mocked for blessing those who persecuted them (Luke 6:18). Foremost among the mockers was Nietzsche (Genealogy of Morals, p17). However, the sacrifice of the first martyr, Saint Stephen, and the subsequent persecution of the Christians suggests that those who persecuted the Christians were a blessing in disguise. Indeed the witness of the martyrs strengthened the Church rather than weakening it.

Joseph A Fitzmyer (Contemporary Catholic Theology p165-167) pointed out that Saul probably had the name Paul from birth. He is more often referred to by his Gentile name, Paul, after he began his mission to the Gentiles but he was “set aside” from birth for the mission he eventually undertook. (Gal 1.15).

Over a period of time, Gentiles joining the Church were no longer expected to comply with the strictures of Judaism. The dietary rules were relaxed on the basis that a Christian could not call unclean that which God had made clean (Acts 10:15); Gentiles did not need to be circumcised (the sign of the old covenant) (Acts 10:45). The 613 Laws listed by the scribes ( were simplified to the two commandments given by Jesus (Luke 10:27).

On this basis, St Paul was able to take the good news to the Gentiles. The gospels do not have a surprise ending. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ were the foundations on which they were built. The early Church believed the second coming of the Lord was imminent. By the time St Luke came to write the Acts of the Apostles this was clearly not the case. Nevertheless, the death on the cross and the resurrection of the Messiah and the Holy Spirit's constant presence and guidance enabled the early church to grow and to become a catholic Church.

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