The early Christian community presumed that faith isn’t faith unless it can be demonstrated through concrete actions that run counter to what someone normally would do. We’re the product of 2,000 years of Christian “tradition.” Most of us come from Christian families. We grew up in a Christian culture which offers us daily reminders of our faith. We presume Christianity is the best religion around, offering us a faith which everyone should profess. Few of us have to work hard to experience the externals of that faith. Our ancestors have faithfully passed that faith on to us. We can’t imagine what it must have been like to begin those faith traditions.

Value system

Jesus’ first followers simply knew they were unique. They had somehow acquired a different value system from that of their friends and family, a different way of looking at everything and everyone around them. All agreed this difference was based on one thing: Because each had experienced the risen Jesus in their lives, those lives would never be the same again. The major change in their behavior revolved around how they related to others. Where once they worked hard at getting the most they could out of their relationships, now they tried to give as much as they could. No longer worried about what they’d receive, they concentrated on how much of themselves they could offer to others. This is why Luke encourages his readers to imitate the early Jerusalem Christian community’s generosity (Acts 4: 32-35). “They were of one heart and one mind,” he writes. “None of them ever claimed anything as his own; rather, everything was held in common.” These initial disciples went so far in their giving that they even sold their property and homes, and donated the proceeds to the community. Though many Scripture scholars question whether the historical Jerusalem community actually went that far in their dedication to one another, Luke presumes dedicated followers of Jesus should go that far. It’s what sets them apart from everyone else. As the writer of I John would later put it, “Everyone begotten of God conquers the world, and the power that has conquered the world is this faith of ours” (I Jn 5: 1-6).

Breath of Christ

Yet it’s clear from John’s Easter Sunday evening narrative that one of the most practical ways we do this conquering is by forgiving those around us. “As the Father has sent me,” Jesus tells His startled disciples, “so I send you.” Then,, breathing on them, He says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive someone’s sins, they are forgiven them; if you hold them bound, they are held bound” (Jn 20: 19-31). Those lines were not originally regarded as the “proof text” for sacramental confession. They were simply a reflection on what happens to those who, like Jesus, become a new creation. Not only are they called upon to give up what they have; they are also expected to give up the power they wield over others. In this case, it’s the power which comes from the pain others have inflicted on them. Once we forgive, we relinquish that power. (By the way, none of John’s intended readers ever thought Jesus empowered them to withhold forgiveness. They assumed that He was simply reminding them of the horrible “binding” of others which they would bring about if they refused to forgive.) Could it be that we so depend on our Christian culture today that we don’t feel any obligation to show our faith in concrete actions? If that’s the case, it’d be interesting to see what would happen if we, like our faith ancestors, really started to concentrate on giving ourselves to others. Perhaps we’d discover we’ve become just as counter-cultural as they were.

(04-24-03)