How Did Early Christians Cope with Radical Change?
Fr. John Freund, C.M. | April 30, 2019
The challenges of accepting new ways of thinking
For at least 7 decades I have been hearing or reading the Acts of the Apostles. This year there is something different. I have long known that the book of Acts tells the story of the early days when Jesus no longer walked among us.
I never thought about the fact that I looked at the Acts of the Apostles from a Christian mindset. Then I asked myself what it was like to observes that history as a somewhat observant Jewish person. It came as a shock to me. I never gave much thought to what was implied in accepting Christ.
I began to see things I had never seen before. This reflection is going to be a bit different from my usual reflections. Today, I try to look at that early history through the eyes of an ordinary Jewish man or ordinary Jewish woman.
If I were a Jewish person 2000 years ago…
Most likely my life would have been hard.
The ordinary Jew in the Holy Land made up 90 percent of the population and bore the burden of supporting the state and the small privileged class. Their life was grinding, with a triple tax burden: to Rome, to Herod the Great and to the temple (to which, traditionally, they owed 10 percent of the harvest).
Most likely I had clear and strongly held core beliefs.
The center of my life would be the belief in being blessed as God’s chosen people.
I would be proud that I had a set of directions directly from God embodied in 10 commandments. I am not sure how I would have felt about the meticulous application of 613 other commandments and untold legal commentaries.
My major religious celebrations from my earliest days would be centered around the ritual meal of the feast of Passover, the equivalent of Independence Day.
I was taught that other, non-Jews, were presumed to be atheists and morally deficient, certainly not to be associated with.
I would be longing for a Messiah, certainly, but one clearly like Moses and probably with overtones of a political liberation of the slavery of foreign powers.
And then along comes Jesus and his followers
Jesus and his followers shook all that up. They presented radically new ways of thinking.
Perhaps it was attractive to let go of the 613 commandments they were familiar with. Two great commandments sounded a lot better. But then reducing it to one – and one that said “Wash one another’s feet!” like servants did? Now that might be a different matter when put that concretely.
“We have always done it this way!’ Passover had strict rules about how it should be celebrated as a memory of the Exodus. Now this Jesus was telling them to forget the old way and celebrate a new Passover in memory of him. Think about that one. It was like a pastor telling Christians that Christmas is not about the birth of Jesus but about celebrating the memory of the pastor!
Here are some other things that would jar a pious Jew:
• What happens to our status as God’s chosen people?
• You expect me to believe that someone rose from the dead?
• Isn’t the Messiah supposed to set us free from oppression?
And then Jesus’ followers believed he had risen from the dead!
They knew he had a following of them… but he had been executed as a common criminal and worse… he claimed he was God (whose name they would not even pronounce.)
These would be just some of things that shook the way the always thought and acted. They had to evaluate and discern.
How do I react today when someone thinks and acts differently than I do?
We certainly know a thing or two about polarization of views when we look around us. Unfortunately, we have hardened so many of our positions that often we cannot look for legitimate values embedded in ways of thinking other than our own.
I suggest it might be worthwhile looking at the Acts of the Apostles as a way of seeing how early Christians and Jews struggled with mindsets other than their own. The early community grew in their understanding of the what happened in their lives in the days after Jesus rose from the dead, walked again among us and told us to spread the Good News in all its implications.
Keeping in mind that Vincent grew in his understanding of what it meant to “wash one another’s feet,” for my part I hope to share with you my growing understanding of how the early church slowly became aware of being the Body of Christ.