By the end of the first century, Christians had to deal with the many divisions resulting from different communities espousing different theologies.

Rooted in Judaism, earliest Christianity accepted diversity. (Remember the old Jewish axiom: "When you have three rabbis in a room discussing theology, you have at least five different theological opinions being addressed.") Accustomed to dozens of Christian denominations in just one medium-sized city, we can't imagine a time when people could profess different theologies, yet still be one Church. The further Christianity removed itself from Judaism, the more it removed itself from diversity.

The roots of the division we now take for grant were certainly being formed 1,900 years ago, or else John's Jesus would never have uttered the Last Supper words in Sunday's Gospel (John 17: 20-26): "I pray for those who will believe in me...so that they all may be one, as you, Father are in me and I am in you, that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me."

Distinction

Scripture scholars often remind us to distinguish be-tween unity and uniformity. It's easy to confuse the two. When it comes to faith, we think everyone must profess identical theology in order to be one and that they're obligated to teach the same implications of their faith in Jesus in order to be "orthodox." The churches of the Christian Scriptures never held such an opinion, or they wouldn't have embedded such diverse theologies in their writings.

Their theological diversity embarrasses and confuses Jesus' modern followers. We don't like to admit our ancestors in the faith even differed on something as important as what happens to us after death. They agreed they would eventually share in the risen Jesus' eternal life, but there was no uniform way in which they expected that goal to be accomplished.

The opinions begin with Paul, the earliest Christian theologian we know. He thought Christians who died before Jesus' second coming would simply cool their heels and bodies in the graves until He arrived. He speaks about this in chapter four of our first Christian writing: I Thessalonians. His belief re-volved around a conviction that Jesus' second coming was just around the corner.

The author of Revelation shares that conviction (Rev 22: 12-14). "Behold I am coming soon," Jesus tells John, the seer. "I bring with me the recompense I will give to each according to their deeds. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end."

Glory today

But Luke, writing in the mid-80s, no longer expects Jesus' Parousia in his lifetime or that of his readers (Acts 7: 55-60). That's why Stephen, the first Christian to die in Acts, at the moment of death, can look up and see "the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God."

We presume when the fatal stone sends Stephen out of this life, he'll immediately share in that glory. He'll experience a "personal Parousia," without spending time in the grave. (We most notice this new theology when Luke's Jesus promises the good thief: "This day, you will be with me in paradise." Had we found the same scene in Paul's writings, Jesus would have told the thief, "After spending a little time in the grave, you'll be with me in paradise.")

One benefit of having diverse theologies was a natural insistence on knowing and following the essentials of our faith. We who today make big things out of religious incidentals should often reflect on Jesus' Gospel prayer: "(Father), I have made known to them your name, and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them."

It might especially be good to recall these words the next time we drive past a Protestant church.

(5/20/04)