Even in a quick, uncritical reading of the Christian Scriptures, early Christianity emerges as a movement, not an institution. Jesus' first followers professed a constantly shifting faith, a faith which not only brought them new insights, but also steered them into areas and among people they couldn't have imagined being part of before Jesus "took" them. Some in the primitive community found this relentless change a blessing; others, a cause of worry. Ironically, only the former wrote Scripture.

Those who think Jesus set up an institution to carry on His work won't understand the need for Sunday's three readings. But because His first followers knew Jesus had started a movement, not an institution, they understood the significance of these passages.

Moving

By definition, institutions can exist without progressing or advancing; movements are expected to do both. Since movements are living entities, they're always concerned with direction and guidance. Their members are constantly asking questions: How do we know we're following the right roads? which leaders and mentors are pointing us in the proper direction? The readings give us two guideposts which the earliest Christians looked for to guarantee they were moving along the right path: the Holy Spirit and love.

One of Luke's reasons for composing Luke/Acts was to explain now a religious movement whose members were 100 percent Jewish to begin with had become almost 100 percent Gentile 50 years later. The second reading is central to Luke's explanation (Acts 10...). Peter's baptism of the Gentile community gathered at Cornelius' house marks the first time in Acts that Gentiles are accepted into Christianity as Gentiles. Before this event, Jesus' disciples baptized only Jews or Gentiles (like Philip's Ethiopian eunuch) who had converted to Judaism.

Luke's defense for this unheard-of, unexpected step is simple: The Holy Spirit made Peter do it. The Holy Spirit forced early Christianity's most important leader to move from a 2,000-year-old belief that Yahweh favored Jews over Gentiles to a point from which he could make this astonishing statement: "I begin to see how true it is that God shows no partiality. Rather, a person of any nation who fears God and acts rightly is acceptable to Him." Then, when the Holy Spirit suddenly descended on these "unclean" Gentiles, Peter put his insight into action. "What," he asks, "can stop these people who have received the Holy Spirit, even as we have, from being baptized with water?"

Pressure

Ten years after Luke wrote, the author(s) of the Gospels and Letters of John faced a parallel situation. The Johannine community was being pressured from without and within. First, their unique theological image of Jesus didn't always mesh with the more traditional picture put forth by the "apostolic" communities.

Second, this new theology led to factions in their own church. Were these problems a sign they were moving in the wrong direction? or were they a result of moving in the right direction?

Though John, like Luke, often emphasizes the Holy Spirit, here he leaves the Spirit in the background and zeroes in one love (Jn 15:9-17). John believes no one, no matter how deeply motivated, can be a true disciple unless he or she is guided by love. We've probably heard these Last Supper words of Jesus so often that we've memorized them. But listen to them again -- for the first time. "Live in my love," Jesus pleads. "You will live in my love if...,There's no greater love then...,I no longer speak of you as slaves...,The command I give you is this: that you love one another." Only those who follow the road of love can be certain they're on the right road.

The author of I John points us in the same direction (1 Jn 4:7-10). "Let us love one another," he writes, "because Love is of God...,Whoever is without love knows nothing of God, for God is love." John believes that only those who love have authority to lead, because only those who love know the way God wants us to travel.

No wonder so many of us wish Jesus had created an institution instead of a movement. Faith would be so much easier.

(05-01-97)