Of late I’ve had an urging to know more about the early years of my religious tradition, the days before Christianity began to take shape as an institution, to the time when it wasn’t even known as Christianity but known as “The Way”. I now experience a compulsion to know the earliest history of my spiritual ancestors. I want to know the communities which are the roots and base of my spirit family tree.
I am not alone in this. Many Christians I know have the same questions, the same desire to know our spiritual ancestry. There seems to be a growing sense that we are turning a full circle to where our community is being more and more directed by Spirit, and which lives in the Spirit, in our relationships and communities. There is also a sense of struggling with competing orthodoxies, traditions and interpretations as they manifest themselves, on one hand, as issues of exclusive cultural and linguistic authority, and on the other hand, which experiences life in the Spirit as an expansive, prophetic and inclusive invitation to God’s loving community.
So there is then a desire to know how our early ancestral communities lived before orthodoxy of culture and scripture, and before church and empire made a pact at Nicaea. How did the early church deal with these same issues, as these issues did exist, and how did the early church began to coalesce around their answers?
Our Christian ancestors were Jews who were students of a Jewish teacher named Yeshua, whom we now call Jesus, who taught The Way as a means to fulfillment in relationship with God and the world, who was crucified by Rome in collaboration with the Jerusalem temple authorities, whose followers knew he died and who they later experienced as resurrected, as living and then experienced the same teacher as mysteriously departing from their earthly experience. They then naturally thought of themselves as figures of authority as they had lived with and studied with Yeshua. They represented authority and orthodoxy, as it were, to the fledgling community of believers and set down the conditions of membership accordingly.
It wasn’t long though before the drama and conflict of differing opinions began to surface. There was a new voice in the community; a man renamed Paul after his mystic conversion through his vision of God, risen Christ, and living Spirit. The original students of Yeshua had one idea about our relationship to God and each other, while Paul had a different idea about these relationships. In short, the debate was about inclusion. Who shall we allow into the community and how shall we treat one another in community?
This discussion has a familiarity to it. It has immediacy to it; we Christians are having discussions about gender (still) and sexual genetics and what these “non-refundable” human traits mean in our churches, our courtrooms and legislatures. Who shall we “let in” and “keep out”? It seems the Spirit keeps wanting to reach ever outward, and people would still seek to contain her. Curious exercise of energy, trying to put limits on the infinite. What is it about us that loves exercises in futility?
One of the insights I gain from the Bible is the historic struggle between people who seek to extend their loving relationship with God to more and more people and those who wish to inhibit it. It is a story of those who would seek to control humanity’s relationship with God and those who would seek to liberate people into relationship with God. Our history is our walking circles around these issues while Spirit does cartwheels through our hard-working preconceptions.
Institutions arise, they invoke authority, require people to invest themselves into the institution, its interpretations and the institution eventually becomes the source and center of these lives. Prophets arise and say otherwise, reminding people that the living loving God is first, and that people aren’t made to serve the institution but that the institution is made to serve people, to remind people that injustice is in putting the needs of institutions before the needs of people. Not just “our” people either, but “those” people, any and all people, because all people are God’s first and we can’t love God if we don’t seek to love all people, even strangers, even our enemies.
Even as Jesus lived and taught there were differences of opinion over who had authority to correctly interpret scripture and its meaning in our relationships with God and each other, Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, were all laying claim to the truth and the authority. Add Jesus to the mix, asking us what else matters that we love one another? It would seem ironically that within months of Jesus’ death that claims of authority to limit God’s realization in the world was again being argued by Peter and Paul. Perhaps we are reliving the early days of the church, the early days when Peter and Paul first understood the course of the church was inclusion. Living bodies grow and live or they atrophy and die.
And again the Spirit exerted herself to be realized as the source of all, to be loved and shared by all, loving God as loving each other, as God loves us for no other reason than because. Still the exclusive claims of exclusion persist, after all these thousands of years, as though the inevitable can be staved off. Eventually, in the timeless journey of the human soul with the timeless One, the human soul comes to remember its purpose to love. This is the orthodoxy I celebrate.
Yet Spirit still seems to have her way, the way, growing in the fullness of time, pushing ever outward, pregnant and giving birth to more and new life, born in the loving act of creation with creation, eternal Madonna and all of us her children.