The Early Christians and the Mission of God
The Michael Green Memorial Lecture
December 9 2019
St Aldate’s Church, Oxford
By the Right Reverend Professor N T Wright, DD FRSE
St Mary’s College, St Andrews, and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford
I am honoured by the invitation to give this lecture in grateful and happy memory of a friend and colleague to whom all of us owe a very great deal. I wish I had known Michael better, but on the many occasions when our paths did cross, from the late 1960s in my undergraduate days to not long before he died, he was unfailingly encouraging and supportive.
When Michael read Greats at Exeter College, his tutor was the great ancient historian Dacre Balsdon. Twenty years later I, also reading Greats at Exeter, was Dacre Balsdon’s very last pupil. I told Dacre I was going to see Michael about something, and he gave a little smile and said ‘Oh, so that’s the sort of man you are!’, which I took as an oblique compliment to Michael and perhaps to me as well. But I had first met Michael when he gave a ‘long weekend’ of evangelistic addresses for the OICCU, in the Union building. It was exhilarating: Michael would do a sparkling address and then invite tricky questions from the packed and sometimes sceptical audience. Michael relished the challenge, leaving the podium and walking down to respond with a smile and an easy grasp of matters historical, philosophical, cultural and of course biblical and theological. It was obvious that he’d done his homework and was able to give clear, crisp and friendly answers. I had never seen anything like it.
I was reminded of that twenty years later when Michael came to preach for me at Evensong in Worcester College. We stood outside the chapel at five to six, with devout students making their way into chapel while twenty yards away a large gaggle of undergraduates was piling in to the early informal dinner. Michael gestured towards the latter group and commented, ‘I’d much rather preach to that lot’. I wish I could have engineered it.
I had one other strange link to Michael, in that my own mentor in my teens was a quiet, unsung hero called Richard Gorrie, who ran the Scottish Scripture Union camps. Michael told me more than once that it was Richard who had led him to Jesus – in the back room of the cricket pavilion at Clifton College, where they were both pupils. Michael once came to address our Scottish annual conference, and he did his stunning exposition of the Letters to the Seven Churches from Revelation, complete with in situ photographs, and ending, of course, with the powerful appeal of the Letter to Laodicea.
Michael stands in my mind alongside John Stott and Jim Packer – I visited Jim Packer in Vancouver on his 93rd birthday this last July – as those who bravely stood up for a biblical and evangelical position in the Church of England when it was neither socially nor intellectually respectable to do so. They carved out a space which my generation has been able to inhabit in new ways, even when, as in my own case, my vocation has been that of a teacher rather than specifically an evangelist. For this brave leadership I, like thousands of others, am grateful to God – and to those, from Rosemary through the rest of the family, who supported Michael through so many years of apparently tireless service.
I have chosen as tonight’s theme a subject dear to my own heart, on which my first instruction came with reading Michael’s 1970 book Evangelism in the Early Church. Re-reading it in preparation for this lecture, I have again been impressed not only with the energetic central ideas but with Michael’s robust and thorough research into the second and third centuries, pulling out all kinds of good things from sources which he knew very well but which many Christians today simply ignore. Michael was of course rooted in scripture, but as a classicist he loved the twists and turns of the real Christian life of the early Roman empire; and it is that real life, that boots-on-the-ground existence, that I want to explore further tonight. Accepting the normal if somewhat misleading distinction between the wider term ‘mission’ and the more focused term ‘evangelism’, I want to look again at the way in which early Christian evangelism was nested within the early Christian mission – which Jesus’ first followers understood as the mission of God himself; and I hope to draw out from that some lessons for our own day. I suspect I am diverging here and there from the way Michael might have put things. But I am confident that he would have beamed with delight and told me to go for it.
The Scriptural Portrait of the Mission of God
One of the Church of England’s slogans over the last generation has been ‘mission-shaped church’. This has been a way of saying that ‘mission’ isn’t just an ‘add-on’ to ‘ordinary church life’, an extra hobby for those who like that kind of thing. That implies that the church is an inward-looking, self-serving institution whose ‘mission’ might be an occasional foray into the dangerous world outside the church door. No: ‘mission’ is to be the priority, and the church needs to be shaped accordingly. We’re still working on that, I think; but, as some of us have been arguing for a while, there are other questions hiding in the wings. ‘Mission’ means different things to different people, and if we’re to be true to the gospel and to scripture mission itself must be shaped biblically; which means eschatologically. If we’re going to have a Mission-shaped church, we need an Eschatology-shaped Mission.
‘Eschatology’ has been one of those muddling words: when my older daughter saw the title of my latest book, History and Eschatology, she said ‘Oh, it’s that ‘E’ word again and I always forget what it means!’ The short answer to that is, Read chapter 4 and you’ll find out; but the slightly longer answer goes like this. What does God intend to do in the end? What is the goal, the telos, the eschaton? Where is the great story of God and the world – the story with Jesus and the Spirit at the centre – where is this great story heading? Only when we grasp that in fully biblical terms can we grasp the role of the church’s mission as central to what theologians are increasingly calling ‘the mission of God’. God’s mission, with the church’s vocation caught up within it, is aimed at God’s intended ultimate future. That’s the point.
At the risk of caricature, we might sketch the two polar opposite answers. For some, the eschaton, God’s eventual aim, is that the world would steadily progress towards a glorious and gospel-shaped future. Many in the late nineteenth century assumed all too readily that the onward progress of western culture was, more or less, the slow and steady arrival of the kingdom of God. All one had to do was to get on board and help the process on its way. Voices of protest were course raised, by such diverse figures as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and in the Edwardian period many people were starting to realise that a steady Hegelian progress was not after all producing the goods. The appalling twentieth century, when secular modernist ambition and secular modernist technology have produced unprecedented horrors, has not prevented the recurring secular gospel which says ‘now that we live in the modern world’ and assumes that this justifies any and every social or cultural move in a supposedly ‘progressive’ direction. And there are still some Christians who seem eager to go along for that ride, sometimes referring to this as ‘mission’. I suspect few of us here tonight are likely to follow down that path.
For others, God’s eventual aim, the ultimate eschaton, is to rescue souls from the wreck of the world; to take people after their death to be with him in ‘heaven’, eventually completing the number of the ‘saved’ who will enjoy the vision of God, safe from the corrupt and distorting world of space, time and matter. This essentially Platonic vision began to creep into the church quite early, becoming mainstream in the western church during the Middle Ages. And this, indeed, has been the standard modern Christian answer to the standard modern sceptical challenge: we belong to the ‘kingdom of heaven’, and our souls, presently exiled from that happy home, will one day return whence we came. Since this is what many modern Christians continue to believe, people often look shocked when I point out that in the first century this was the view, not of Paul or the early Christians, but of the pagan priest and philosopher Plutarch. It is straight Middle Platonism.
The biblical view, over against these two popular distortions, is for new heavens and new earth, joined together in a single whole. This is what the early Christians meant by ‘new creation’. To begin at the end: the final scene in the Bible is not one of saved souls going up to heaven, but of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, so that ‘the dwelling of God is with humans’. That was always the point: from Genesis 1 and 2 onwards, the purpose of creation was not to provide a moral training-ground or examination-centre from which humans could, if they made the grade, ascend to a non-material heaven, but to create a heaven-plus-earth bipartite reality into which the creator would himself come and be at home together with his human family. That is why Paul says in Ephesians 1.10 that God’s purpose was always ‘to sum up the whole cosmos in the Messiah – yes, everything in heaven and on earth, in him.’ And that is why resurrection matters: renewed bodies in and for God’s renewed world. This is what Paul means in 1 Corinthians 15.28 when his sketch of the ultimate future ends with God being ‘all in all’. And in Romans 8 he explains how it will be done: in a great act of cosmic rescue and renewal, for which the Exodus provides the backcloth and Jesus’ own resurrection the model: God will do for the whole creation at the last what he did for Jesus at Easter.
No surprises there for those who follow the scriptural story. The first great narrative arc in the Bible runs from Adam and Eve to Abraham and Sarah. Adam and Eve are the image-bearers, called to reflect the powerful love of the creator into the world and to reflect the praises of the world back to God. After the disaster, climaxing with Babel, Abraham is called to get the original project back on track. Abraham’s family, sharing Adam’s disease, have to learn that they are God’s people only through an act of dramatic rescue, brought through the waters to new creation; and only then, having escaped from the power of the Egyptian idols, can they become what they’re meant to become, the Tabernacle-bearing people. The larger narrative arc then runs from Genesis 1 and 2 to Exodus 40, where – as Revelation 21 surely echoes – the dwelling of God is with humans, or at least, because of their continuing idolatry, just outside the camp. And the Tabernacle is constructed carefully and deliberately as a heaven-and-earth structure, with a God-reflecting human (in this case, Aaron) at its heart. It is, in fact, a small working model of new creation.
The Tabernacle – and, later, Solomon’s Temple – is thus the sign of the mission of God. It is the microcosmos: the little ‘new world’ which signals the great new creation to come. Humans, and thus the whole creation, are to be rescued from slavery to idolatry and corruption so that they can be the God-bearing people, the new Temple. This is what John means when he says that the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us. It’s what Paul is talking about when he insists that in the Messiah all the divine fullness was pleased to dwell. In Messiah Jesus the narrative arc has reached its primary goal. Jesus himself is the ultimate Temple, the place where and the means by which the creator God has come to dwell not only among his human creatures but as one of us.
Once we see things in this light we realise what’s going on in those famous promises in Numbers 14, Psalm 72, Isaiah 11, Habakkuk 2 and elsewhere – promises that ‘the earth shall be full of the glory of the Lord’, or ‘the knowledge of the Lord’ as the waters cover the sea. God fills the Tabernacle, and then the Temple, with his glorious presence, as the sign of a much greater filling, the flooding of the whole creation with that same presence. Creation was not made as a disposable laboratory for testing and preparing humans for life elsewhere. It was designed to be the heaven-and-earth receptacle for divine glory; for God to be ‘all in all’, even though this will now require, as with Jesus himself, an act of astonishing and costly rescue, and the even more astonishing new creation.
This is the eschatological vision which forms the ultimate biblical horizon for the mission of God. That then gives us the horizon for the church’s own mission, by which the church’s life must be shaped; and, within that again, we find the specific work of the gospel, the evangel, the good news which in the power of the Spirit addresses, challenges, rescues and transforms humans. My case to you tonight is that all these belong closely together, more closely than much evangelical theology has traditionally realised; that recognising this enables us to understand the inner dynamic of multi-dimensional early church life; and that glimpsing that vision might help us towards fresh integration and articulation of God’s mission and the task of evangelism in our increasingly muddled and misguided world.
If the larger parameters of God’s mission are thus, one might say, Temple-shaped, the specific markers of that mission have to do with resurrection. We live between ‘resurrection’ Mark One, the resurrection of Jesus himself, and ‘resurrection’ Mark Two, the final consummation at Jesus’ return: that is, between the inauguration of the new heaven-and-earth reality, in Jesus’ own body, and its final consummation, the ultimate result of the work of the Spirit. The church’s mission is framed by these two: the God who created humans so that he could accomplish his purposes in creation through their reflecting his image now calls the Spirit-filled followers of Jesus to be his renewed image-bearers in reflecting his new-creation purposes into the world. Thus, though God no doubt does a myriad other things without any human being involved, yet he characteristically delights to take us humans into his counsels: ‘I’ve called you friends,’ said Jesus in John 15, as he shared with them the secrets of the Father’s purposes.
This perspective offers a view of the church’s mission which is neither the shallow optimism of a nineteenth-century or social-gospel ‘progress’ nor the escapist dualism which says ‘this world is not my home’ because I’m ‘just passing through’. Evangelicals have been making great strides in the last generation to articulate a richer and fuller vision of Christian life and calling, not least through the various branches of the charismatic movement in which our dear friend Michael was so cheerfully involved. Once you recognise that God really is interested in bodies as well as souls, it’s a short and biblical route to recognising that God likes beauty and justice as much as we do and in fact a whole lot more. But I have a sense that some of the movements that were learning to recognise all this a generation ago, with Michael and others leading the way, have got stuck in a kind of half-way house which can easily fall back again into a shallow pietism, losing its grip on the great scriptural narratives of creation, Israel, Exodus, Temple and new creation within which the charismatic vision is properly framed. But of that, more anon.
The mission of the church, then, is to be the Spirit-filled agency through which genuine advance signs of new creation are brought to birth. What God accomplished in Jesus’ resurrection is to be actualised again and again in acts of justice and mercy; in the sacramental life which mysteriously takes up water, bread and wine into God’s purposes; in the marriage of man and woman which, from Genesis to Revelation, acts as a potent symbol of the fruitful joining of heaven and earth; in the creation and celebration of art, music, literature and a thousand other vehicles of beauty. The reason why all these can become contested and controversial is precisely because the dark enemy, though basically defeated on the cross, is still determined to thwart, delay or distort the ultimate transforming reunion of heaven and earth as much as possible. And one of those thwarting tactics is to persuade parts of the church that all these are in fact secondary concerns, since God is only interested in getting souls into heaven. Dualism, which breeds types of Gnosticism, was one of the earliest temptations of the church, since it neatly avoids a clash with the powers that be. That’s what’s happened in America the last two hundred years, which is the reason for the multiple confusions there at the moment. (We British, of course, are always confused, and I think at many other levels as well.) And the heart of what I want to say tonight is that if this is the multi-dimensional mission of the church then the task of evangelism proper lies exactly at the heart of this mission.
Many of us, as you will know, grew up with a great divide between what we called ‘evangelism’ and what we called ‘social action’ or some other arm-waving name. I am trying – albeit briefly! – to sketch a biblical view of the church’s mission in which all the tasks to which God calls people are tightly integrated within the Spirit-given vocation of new creation. And I hope that this might not only help nervous evangelicals to embrace the larger mission agenda, but also help those who have in the past resisted the word ‘evangelism’ because of its apparently dualistic or even elitist overtones to see the glorious appropriateness of the evangelistic vocation, task, process and result.
Here’s how it works. The church, according to the New Testament, is itself the new Temple, the place where God now dwells by his Spirit. If that sounds impossibly grandiose for the actual ecclesial communities we know, we should remind ourselves that the first people Paul says this to are the Corinthians, and we know what a mess they were in. But this reality about the church is, I think, what Paul is referring to in a famous line in Colossians where he speaks of ‘the Messiah in you, the hope of glory’ (1.27). In Jewish thought ‘the hope of glory’ – as in well-known passages like Isaiah 40 – is the hope that the divine glory will return at last. Paul believes that this has happened in Jesus, that it is happening by the Spirit, and that it will happen when Jesus returns and God is ‘all in all’; so that, in the present time, the fact that there is a Spirit-filled community in Colossae, worshipping the One God through his son Jesus, is the mystery which anticipates the final state when the whole creation will likewise be filled with God’s glory. The church – and this is the point of a good deal of New Testament teaching – is to be in the new creation what the Tabernacle and the Temple were before: small working models of new creation. Again, many of us are all too aware of the church’s failings and deficiencies; but God is not mocked or thwarted, and away from the headlines and the scandals the church is still doing and being what it has always done and been, a sign to the world that God is God and Jesus is Lord.
And this ecclesial reality, at last, is the frame within which we can understand the specific task and vocation of evangelism – of so presenting the gospel that men, women and children will be drawn to repentance, to explicit faith, and to baptised membership in that family. ‘If anyone is in the Messiah’, declares Paul in 2 Corinthians 5, ‘there is a new creation’. Actually he doesn’t say ‘there is’; the Greek is simply ei tis en Christo, kaine ktisis, ‘if anyone in Messiah, new creation!’. In other words, what I just said about the church is also true, close up and personal, of every single baptised believer. When Paul declares, of individual Christians, that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, he is writing as a Jew for whom the Temple itself was, as I’ve stressed, a small advance working model of new creation. When you preach the gospel to a group of people; when you prayerfully invite a friend to open her or his heart to the love of God revealed in the cross; when you challenge an unbeliever with the remarkable and coherent truth of Jesus – then you are calling them not just to be rescued from the consequences of idolatry, not simply to be assured of post mortem salvation, not only to find a new peace and purpose in their present life – though all of those are of course true as well – but to become part of a larger project, to become – to say it again – small working models of that larger project.
You see, ‘justification’ and ‘justice’ go hand in hand. You could put it like this, in an aphorism which I’ve been working out over recent years. God’s settled purpose is to put the whole world right in the end. In the present time, by the power of the gospel, he puts human beings right with himself, in order that they can at once become part of his putting-right project for the world. And the putting-right project includes everything from evangelism to justice, from marriage to beauty. New creation is what matters, and all individual Christians, being themselves new creation in the Messiah, are by definition image-bearers, ‘the royal priesthood’. When John hears the heavenly host praising the slaughtered Lamb, they do not say that by his blood he has ransomed people for God so that they could go to heaven and gaze at God for ever and ever, but so that, as the royal priesthood, they will reign on the earth. And their present reign, like that of Jesus himself, will be marked by suffering, powerful witness, apparent failure, and final victory. Evangelism is the royal summons to anybody and everybody to take up that strange and glorious vocation.
The Historical Practice of the Mission of God
The incentive to say ‘yes’ to that summons comes from many directions. We are all far more aware these days of the wide divergence in personality types, whichever tools we may use to label them. As I move now from my longer first half, on the biblical basis of the mission of God to the historical outworkings of that mission in the early church – the field which Michael Green made his own in that seminal 1970 book – it is vital to say that the wide range of conversion-types in the New Testament is exactly what we should expect both from our own pastoral and evangelistic practice and from what we know of human beings.
But before we can address that there is a serious problem of language and understanding. Many still talk as if following Jesus is basically what we today call a ‘religious’ experience. That is deeply misleading – as it would have been in the ancient world. The word ‘religion’ has had several quite different meanings over the years, and it has only ever partially fitted what genuine Christianity was all about. In the ancient world, ‘religion’ was the civic and social reality that held together every aspect of life in a household, a city or a region: you honoured the gods, with prayers, incense, sacrifice, processions and festivals, so that they would look after you. Failure to do that was deeply anti-social; if there was an earthquake or famine, they’d know who to blame. The Christians didn’t join in. Most onlookers wouldn’t have thought of them as a ‘religion’ at all, except for their baptism and their shared meal. They looked more like a cross between a synagogue and a philosophical society, learning about God and the world in a whole new way. What’s more, ancient religions didn’t tell you how to behave. It was the philosophers who tried to do that.
But if the early Christians weren’t like ancient ‘religion’, they were certainly not like what the modern western world has called ‘religion’. Since the eighteenth century the increasingly secular world has labelled as ‘religion’ anything to do with any transcendent reality, with the assumption that such realities, if they exist, have nothing whatever to do with the world of space, time and matter. Christian faith is then seen as one example among many of such a detached phenomenon. But this is to impose a worldview alien to the first century. It separates out explicitly what we now call the ‘natural’ from what we now call the ‘supernatural’, words that have been twisted to fit eighteenth-century modernism. And part of the tragedy of that is that the church has, by and large, gone along for the ride. Modern secularism has said ‘we will run the world and work towards our secular utopia, and you religious people can teach people how to say their prayers and go to heaven’. This was always a power-grab: from the very beginning the church had cared for the poor, had taught people how to read, had sought to bring healing through prayer and medicine, had worked with orphans and prisoners, had confronted rulers to remind them of their God-given duties. Now the secular world – including the secular media – has thought it could do it better. Hence the desire first to create a new category called ‘religion’, deemed to be irrelevant to everyday life, and second to declare that Christianity was one of these ‘religions’. And many Christians agreed – drawing, once more, on Plato to say that the real point was ‘going to heaven’ so why worry about the present world? And the calling to evangelise has been caught in this pinch.
The early Christians would have been horrified. For them, the mission of God – within which ‘evangelism’ took place in many different ways – was all-embracing, precisely because it was about new creation, the renewal of the whole created order and its wonderfully interlocking unity. For the Jew or the Christian, heaven and earth were not far from one another; they were meant to overlap and interlock. For the Christian, this had happened supremely in Jesus and was happening in all kinds of ways through the Spirit. To ignore the plight of the poor would not only be forgetting Jesus’ own teaching and example; it would be to forget the entire Messianic agenda of seminal passages like Isaiah 11 or Psalm 72. Just as in Israel’s theology the king builds the Temple so that the divine glory can dwell there, so in those passages the king does justice and mercy so that the divine glory can dwell in all the world. That was the agenda Jesus had followed, and his Spirit-anointed followers did the same. What has tragically happened in the modern church is that the proper Reformation emphasis on ‘faith not works’ as the marker of justification has been taken over within post-Enlightenment Protestantism and turned into ‘sacred not secular’, which then means ‘religious not political’, or perhaps ‘spiritual not worldly’.
All this helps to explain, to return to the point I began earlier, why different people respond to different aspects of the gospel. An older evangelism tended to concentrate on two things: the heart and the mind. The heart could be moved to tears by the thought of Jesus standing knocking on the door, kept outside by the hard-hearted sinner. The mind could be argued into acquiescence by the clever apologist, able to marshall arguments for faith from a standing start. But the heart can be strangely warmed by many things that are neither true nor wholesome. The Romantic movement substituted ‘the sublime’ for the sacred, and Christian romanticism is always in danger of going that route. The rationalists tried to prove everything by self-standing reason alone; but the mind can be bamboozled by clever but specious arguments. Jesus taught us to love God with heart, mind, soul and strength; and the church at its best has always tried to hold all four together, with the ‘strength’ – the energy that goes into works of justice and mercy – and the ‘soul’ – the personality that glimpses beauty and truth and works to re-express it – to the fore, giving context and body to the heart and the mind. We need all four.
And my point now is that in the first three or four centuries of the church we can see the church doing just that – all four. People have sometimes been puzzled that the early church didn’t seem to emphasize justification by faith and the kind of conversion-theology we associate with it. Others have been eager to criticize the early church as colluding with oppressive social and cultural structures and so on. Michael Green’s own work on the church of that period, and the work of other more recent writers, will help us get back on track. The early Christians were determinedly living out the Mission of God, within which the specific evangelistic message of Jesus was being articulated loud and clear. But, as Michael underlined in his book, that message was set in a context in which people could see for themselves that the power and presence of Jesus really did free people from demonic bondage – a major preoccupation in much of the ancient world – and really did generate and sustain quite new patterns of life and community, ways of behaviour which put into practice things that some philosophers had aimed at but none had really achieved. This is how Michael put it, on p. 120 of his book Evangelism in the Early Church:
If the ethics of the Christians were not in theory greatly different from the best of Stoic and Jewish teaching, in practice they were, and they were inspired and ennobled by a new motivating force , which the Christians claimed was none other than the Spirit of this gracious God active within their lives. They made the grace of God credible by a society of love and mutual care which astonished the pagans and was recognised as something entirely new. It lent persuasiveness to their claim that the New Age had dawned in Christ.
Other more recent studies have emphasized the same point from different angles. Let me just mention four. Twenty years ago the American sociologist Rodney Stark wrote his now famous book The Rise of Christianity, detailing several areas of life in which the early Christians lived in such a way that people were drawn to investigate, and then often to adopt, the faith, despite sceptical sneers on the one hand and sporadic persecution on the other. Ten years ago John Ortberg in California wrote a book called Who Is This Man?, working through church history, showing how the most astonishing turn-around happened in education, medicine, care of the poor and social egalitarianism – all because of ‘this man’, the Jesus who the early Christians were following. Three years ago Larry Hurtado, New Testament professor in Edinburgh who sadly died just two weeks ago, published his book Destroyer of the Gods, detailing the many ways in which the early Christians stood out as radically distinctive in the Roman world. Now, even more recently, the historian Tom Holland has just published his book Dominion, demonstrating at point after point how many things we take for granted in modern Western culture can be traced directly back to the revolutionary lifestyle of the early Christians. It is vital that we get to know these lines of thought, because as our world becomes more and more culturally confused there are other voices, like those of the atheist philosopher A. C. Grayling and the Harvard Psychologist Stephen Pinker, who want to say that the real advances have come through the western Enlightenment and that Christianity is a corrupt and debilitating habit we need to kick. I suggest that Stark, Ortberg, Hurtado and Holland – a very diverse reading list, that – ought to be studied carefully if we are to glimpse how the church really got under way and what we can learn from it.
This is the point at which we need to grasp the regular theological nettle of nature and grace. It has sometimes been easy for historians of the early movement to ‘explain’ the rise and development of Christianity by suggesting that people were tired of the old gods, bored with the old philosophies, and ready to embrace this new and exciting alternative. Take that with a very large pinch of salt: people are not likely to sign on for something which may involve losing your job, your friends and before too long perhaps your life, just because you’re bored with traditional customs. Likewise, it wasn’t just that the Roman roads and postal service provided a framework within which people could travel widely, letters could be sent to and fro, and networks of communities could stay in touch and support one another. All that is important. But it still doesn’t explain what happened – that, within a century of Jesus’ boyhood, the Roman emperor was getting letters from northern Turkey about these wretched Christians, and that within two more centuries, despite sometimes horrendous persecution and social obloquy, so many people had given allegiance to Jesus that the emperor saw which was the wind was blowing and made it legal.
It would be easy, of course, to forget arguments like this entirely and to suggest that the gospel made its way by pure supernatural power, with the Spirit active through evangelistic preaching in the hearts and minds of people. This is where the nature/grace dialectic kicks in: what sort of an explanation can we give? And this is where I and others have determinedly resisted the false either/or. God’s grace rescues, transforms and reshapes nature – but the nature that results is nature as it was always intended to be. In this case, the early work of the gospel itself generated and shaped communities in which believing the ridiculous and scandalous message of the gospel – that a crucified Jew could be the Lord of the world! – became first thinkable and then doable.
This is where, once again, our notions of ‘religion’, and the unholy alliance between the ‘religion/reality’ antithesis of the eighteenth century and the ‘faith/works’ antithesis of the Protestant Reformers, have really let us down. The formation of Jesus-believing communities in which radical new lifestyles were attempted and celebrated has nothing to do with people trying to save themselves by their good works, and nothing to do with a kind of ecclesiastical triumphalism. It has everything to do with the sense, from Jesus onwards, that through his kingdom-work, and especially through his death, resurrection and ascension, the creator God was establishing the church to be – as Paul puts it in Ephesians 3.10 – a sign to the principalities and powers, a sign that God is God and Jesus is Lord.
So what was distinctive about this new community? A very great deal. Let’s just enumerate the most obvious features. For a start, the Christians thought of themselves as a family, what the sociologists call a ‘fictive kinship group’ – despite the fact that they were from many different nations and ethnicities, that they included slaves and free together as brothers and sisters, that they were translocal as well as transethnic. In fact the only other even vaguely similar organisations in their world were the Synagogue communities on the one hand and the Roman army and imperial administration on the other – but the former was of course for Jews (and proselytes) only, and the latter was a strict male hierarchy under Caesar’s orders. Second, the Christians were an astonishing learning community, in a world where education was for the elite. They taught people to read, to read the Bible, to catch up on the back history of the Messiah whose family they had joined. Third, they were cheerfully egalitarian in a world of rigid class and gender division. Fourth, they were outward-facing and philanthropic, known for helping not only fellow Christians members but the poor at large. Indeed, at one point the Roman authorities didn’t know much about who these Christians were but they knew that they had people called Bishops who were always banging on about the plight of the poor. Fifth, they were ethically rigorous in a world where moral standards were mostly very lax: the pagan medical doctor Galen, at the end of the second century, didn’t know much about Christians but he knew that they believed in resurrection and that they didn’t sleep around – both, of course, reflecting the high value the Christians put on the body. Galen thought they were mad on both counts, but he respected them for their tenacious holding to their way of life. Sixth, like the Jews in general the early Christians didn’t do abortion an infanticide – both widespread practices, especially getting rid of unwanted baby girls. (That is why there were more Christian women than pagan women in the third century, resulting in many mixed marriages and many children being brought up Christian.) Seventh, they were non-retaliatory: their rule of life, just as you see in the persecuted Coptic church today, was to follow Jesus’ rule in praying for their persecutors and not seeking to hit back. And, in and through it all, the early Christians were radically counter-cultural in the deepest way, because they didn’t worship the gods that were on every corner and in every hearth and home. They didn’t worship Mars or Mammon or Aphrodite – or Caesar; and that made them instantly suspect. They worshipped the One God of Creation, the God of Abraham, the God who had become human in and as Jesus. This gave them a new-creational identity which quickly spilled over into new art forms, new poems, new songs, and before too long new iconography. For all this, they were therefore regarded as dangerous subversives, letting the side down socially, culturally and politically.
This movement, then, which as Michael said lent persuasiveness to the belief that the New Age had dawned with Jesus, wasn’t a ‘religion’ in either the ancient or modern sense. It was a monotheistic, worship-based, scripture-shaped, philosophically acute, new-creational, egalitarian, multi-ethnic, philanthropic, outward-facing, ethically rigorous, politically subversive fictive kinship group. Unless you have all that present to your mind when you say the phrase ‘the early church’, you are selling them short. But if you can hold it all for a moment, and then ask yourself the question, Now if someone in that group says that a crucified Jew has been raised from the dead and is the true Lord of the world, you might just swallow your scepticism and hold on to the proposal long enough to sense the warmth of the Creator’s love seeping through into your heart, mind, soul and strength.
And when we contemplate this community — very ordinary people, often very poor, in the first three centuries, living like this – then for us comfortable western theologians to tell them off because they didn’t talk about justification by faith in the way we have often done seems, to put it mildly, to be missing the point.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that the gospel works partly by its own power and partly by human effort in creating and sustaining this community of belief. Because of course that community was itself conscious of being created and sustained precisely by the gospel and the Spirit in the first place. But once this has begun – from the day of Pentecost onwards, in other words – this is how it happened. Of course there are the exceptions – the isolated conversions like the Ethiopian Eunuch (though there Philip represents the whole church). But most people in the first few centuries who heard about Jesus heard about him in a context where there was a group of Jesus-followers living their dangerous, joyful, subversive life of praise, prayer and community support. This is the historical practice of the Mission of God.
The Contemporary Challenge
Michael Green, in many of his works, was adept at taking this kind of historical analysis and ramming home the contemporary challenge. I haven’t left myself with much time to do that, and I hope the practical application will be fairly obvious. But let me just say one thing by way of conclusion.
It is time to name and shame the way the western church has colluded with the split world of the Enlightenment – often justifying this through the false analogy with the reformational faith/works divide. The Enlightenment has said ‘OK, we’ll run the world now – you just save souls for heaven’. The conservative churches have often – not always – said ‘all right, that’s fine by us’. The liberal churches have tended to say ‘All right, we’ll help a bit with your social project, and we won’t worry about that escapist ‘heaven’ stuff.’ I know that’s an oversimplification but we live in a world of slogans and sound-bites and actually this isn’t just a caricature. Of course, the charismatics – thank you, Michael – have tried to hold together things which other traditions had forced apart. Thank God for that. But even so you can see how we’ve got into such a muddle on both sides of the Atlantic at the interface of faith and public life. We need to recover the holistic sense of genuine monotheistic and new-creational worship and life, embracing all of human existence within the love of God. This is where the notion of God’s mission is I think so helpful: once we realise that God the creator is committed to bringing heaven and earth together in Christ, and that our own mission and evangelism is at the sharp edge of that project rather than instantiating a dualist escapism, we can support and encourage a wide range of tasks within the body of Christ, knowing that they contextualise the evangelistic message rather than distracting from it.
You see, when it all comes down to it, the gospel message is very simple – and I think if Michael was here he’d want to say, Spell it out, Tom, don’t let them go home without hearing it! So, yes, of course, in the famous words: the creator God loved the world so much that he gave his only son, so that all who believe wouldn’t perish but would share the life of God’s new age! The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me! If those sentences don’t strike a chord for you, there might be many reasons, but one could be that it’s time for you at last, in a phrase I once heard Michael use, to get down on your benders and say, Yes, Lord, thank you: rescue me, remake me, fill me, make me a new creation and set me to work within your world-redeeming project. God is the God of surprises and new starts, of new covenant and new creation. The early church lived, and thank God many parts of the church today live, as a community in which it makes sense to say that the crucified and risen Jesus is Lord of the world, and to summon people of all sorts and all places to give him their believing allegiance. May God give us grace and energy, not least with the example of Michael Green before us, to live and preach and pray this gospel to his glory. Amen.