We all know the story. Well those of us who have been around church for a while know the story. 50 days after Jesus died the Holy Spirit descended on the church - the church being 120 people who were gathered in Jerusalem. There was wind, and fire, and multiple languages, and the power of conviction [and some confusion from onlookers]. It was the launching pad for the church to take off and take over the world with the message of Jesus - the launch of a new revolutionary product. The church was born, powerfully spirited, and in the first day multiplied their number 25 times. ‘Sales’ went through the roof! They had vision, purpose, linguistic skills, and punch. Legendary!
Yeah, well, we now know it didn’t happen like this. The Book of Acts, from whence this story comes, is a mid-2nd century piece of creative writing that is trying to make out that the early Jesus movement was unified, Jerusalem-based, under the leadership of 12 male disciples, with Peter paramount, and expanding exponentially. Whereas the historical and textual evidence from mid-1st century sources [primarily Paul’s letters] indicates that the early Jesus movement was diverse and splintered, probably beginning in Galilee, centred on homes and tables, especially the homes of wealthy widows, with men and women offering leadership. Indeed there were lots of leadership roles.
Hal Tausig quips that ‘in the beginning was the meal’ – not a God up above showering down flames and power. We, the movement that became church, began from below, and we began messy.
Indeed the Books of Acts is a clean-up job designed to create a myth of Christian cohesion and certainty – with visible unity, under clearly defined male leadership – in a time [2nd century] of discord and uncertainty.
The 1st century reality of the emerging Jesus movement was that, to use a phrase from modern management speak, they were building the plane as they flew it. The movement, or ‘the Way’ as it was called, were a network of house churches that within a decade or so of Jesus’ death expanded beyond Palestine.
It wasn’t like the origins of a multinational corporation, with a key founder or two, and a talented board of directors, who after initial success in a major market expanded out across the world. No, the movement began with a dead founder [declared a criminal and executed], a dispirited and fractured group of followers – largely from the impoverished and marginalized classes, who slowly and tentatively came together in little house groups [frightened of the authorities], found the spirit of Jesus like a tiny candle still miraculously in their midst, and gradually began connecting with each other. There were lots of disagreements and differences and tensions in the movement. There was no master plan, no strategic goals, and KPIs. It was a messy movement.
In the 50s Paul wrote to a house church in Corinth plagued by in-fighting – offering the healing metaphor of ‘we are one body’ [he probably had his fingers and toes crossed when he said that!]. In chapter 12 Paul lists a number of roles in the early movement that Gordon Raynal
has recently put into more helpful language.
Firstly, there were ‘traveling house network organisers’, aka apostles, whose task involved searching out ‘peace of God’ houses [that’s what they were called; not ‘churches’] and there speaking peace, sharing food, healing any who were ill, lodging for a night, and then moving on to other houses. Paul lists this as the number one job in the movement. They were encouragers.
Then the number two job was ‘preachers’, aka prophets. Their job was to declare the message of freedom, promise, justice, and peace found in the Torah, Prophets and Writings of the Jewish scriptures. Each house was a preaching place.
The next job was ‘biblical scholars’ aka teachers. Bear in mind that most people in the movement were illiterate. The teachers educated the preachers too. Education, thanks to our Jewish DNA, had a high priority. Very Presbyterian.
Next Paul lists ‘wonder workers’ aka deeds of power doers. We don’t have a clue really what this title refers to. Raynal says, “We might do well to talk about extraordinary talent and the amazing things that happen when truly talented people provide leadership in an organization”.
Every church needs its wonder workers, and I’ve known a few.
Fifthly Paul lists ‘nurses and doctors’ aka healers. The Jesus movement was a holistic health care movement. Spirituality was not divided off from health. Providing such health care Paul saw as a particular gift of some, but not all.
Next, there was what Raynal calls ‘bureaucrats’ aka assistants and leaders. These are the people who patiently and meticulously tend to the detail it takes to organize human endeavours. Think of the meal every time the ‘peace of God’ house met. Think of rosters! Think of resolving conflicts between people who want to do the same thing differently. The authentic Pauline letter to Philemon is all about an important ‘assistant’ in the church.
Lastly, Paul lists ‘foreign language speakers and translators’ aka those who speak in tongues. While many religions know the phenomena of what Pentecostals call ‘speaking in tongues’, and we know this phenomena was present in the Jesus movement, it was far more strategically important [as the Acts reading today indicates] to have translators to reach out and communicate with people across the Empire. In Palestine alone there were four key languages – Latin, Koine Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic.
And like Acts 2 also indicates, the Jesus movement was trying to ‘undo’ the Tower of Babel myth – namely to bring people together around a message of good news: peace, justice, blessing, and promise; rather than the me-first, greed-first, top-dog, win-lose philosophy of Babel.
So, Paul’s list, indicating tasks and focus in the early Jesus movement, tells us not only about their organization – multiple jobs for multiple people [and not reliant on the ‘one big chief’ model] but also about their vision, namely people connecting with people, breaking down not only language barriers but [in eating together], breaking down gender, class, and ethnic barriers, speaking significant truth, educating, and honouring and honing talent.
I see our St Luke’s vision as similar. In short hand our vision is: 1. valuing everyone, 2. open to God, 3. on a journey, 4. togetherness, and 5. reaching out.
In long hand:
We are a community who dream of a kinder, more just world where everyone is valued - especially those who are vulnerable, different, or are children. We value everyone’s talents, abilities and leadership. We are committed to that dream being made real every time we meet [and, I would add, especially when we worship together].
We are a community too who seek to be open to the God of Jesus, which means creating space for reflective silence, beauty, art, reading, and music. Our Presbyterian heritage is a wide doorway to the world, not a narrow alley.
Our spirituality, though influenced by progressive scholarship and interfaith dialogue, is characterised by the metaphor of journey. We are on our way. We haven't arrived. Many things we don't know. We are learning. We make mistakes.
We like rolling our sleeves up and helping in practical ways. We care about each other and each other's families. We like to laugh, share, and eat together. We are here to help anyone we can – friend or stranger.
We are a church and a community centre, grounded in Remuera but with our eyes and hearts reaching out. We value the collaborative networks we are a part of that share our vision for a more just and kinder world.
To refer again to the early Jesus movement and to the metaphor of building the plane as they flew it – I think they knew the general direction they wanted to go in [their vision] but the specifics needed to be worked out in each place, context, and time just like us.
I think too they had a good idea of what a good plane was built of – firstly relationships with one another; secondly coming together regularly for food, prayer, healing, and learning; and lastly having multiple roles in which members could offer their leadership and talents. Of course, as I’ve mentioned, this togetherness was messy. There were lots of conflicts. Conflicts over who was in charge, the role of women, how to interpret scripture, marriage and sexuality, personalities, race, etc. Sounds familiar doesn’t it!
My point is the plane the early Jesus movement was flying was far from perfect, with lots of discord and uncertainty. But that didn’t stop them!! They engaged in a weekly ritual that remembered Jesus, celebrated the ideal of freedom and joy [even – especially- when they weren’t experiencing it], and then encouraged each other to express their talents, leadership, and ministries to promote the empire/kin-dom of God.
I was raised on the Acts 2 myth of Christian origins – powered up by God, cohesive and united. But I find the reality of a messy movement, human and frail, trusting in the vagarities of God, far more relatable to, and encouraging of our experience of church in the 21st century.