It's difficult for modern Christians to recapture our first-century ancestors' unique experience of being Jesus' disciples. No matter our denomination, we're accustomed to some structure, ritual and tradition. Our predecessors had almost none of the three.

Jesus' earliest followers at first presumed they'd live their faith within the structure, ritual and tradition of Judaism. But once they were thrown out of temple and synagogue, and Gentiles started to replaces Jews as primary converts, Christians had to begin creating their own faith-environment.

Especially in Paul's early letters, we hear his delight and amazement that this new climate was working. Even without the Jewish structure on which he (and all the first evangelists) had initially relied, he was able to convey the importance of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, and those to whom he preached seemed to be successfully carrying out the Jesus-message in their own lives.

It works!

We see some of that delight and amazement narrated in Sunday's first reading (Acts 14:21-27). Writing about 40 years after the event he describes, Luke tries to recapture the sense of awe and gratitude which the historical Paul and Barnabas must have experienced when they realized "it's working!"

They "retraced their steps,....gave their disciples reassurances, and encouraged them to persevere in the faith." Then, returning to Antioch where their first missionary journey had started, "they called the congregation together and related all that God had helped them accomplish, and how He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles."

How did Paul and Barnabas (or any of the first Christians) know in what direction to go? Did they just free-float, or did they move in a determined way? In the second and third readings, we find at least two principles which guided these Christians in their quest to understand and convey Jesus' life and ministry in an orderly fashion.

The author of Revelation provides the first principle (Rev. 21:1-5). Narrating a vision of the "new Jerusalem" coming down from heaven to earth, he proclaims, "I heard a loud voice from the throne cry out: `This is God's dwelling among humans. He shall dwell with them and they shall be His people, and He shall be their God who is always with them.'" John is reminding his community of an essential belief of earliest Christianity: Jesus' death and resurrection has created a state in which a once-distant God is now present in every person and situation we experience.

Removing a wall

The Synoptic Evangelists had expressed the same belief when they mentioned that, at the death of Jesus, the "veil of the temple was torn in two." The veil was the tapestry dividing the Holy of Holies (the section of the temple housing the ark of the covenant) from the rest of the temple; the object separating sacred from profane. The first Christians believed Jesus' death completely destroyed the wall between humans and God. Faith in Jesus enabled them to follow a God who had been liberated from all restrictions of place, time and person. God is present where and when any of His creation is present.

We find the second guiding principle in the Gospel (Jn 13:31-, 34-35). Immediately after washing His disciples' feet, Jesus proclaims, "I give you a new commandment: Love one another. Such as my love has been for you, so must your love be for each other. This is how all will know you are my disciples: your love for one another."

According to John, the Son of Man will demonstrate His "glorified" presence in His followers when they imitate His love and duplicate His total giving of Himself for others.

Both these principles are the heart of early Christianity's creation of structure, ritual and tradition. Believing God to be present in everyone and everything forced them both to permit Gentiles to join their communities and to expand their notion of liturgy beyond conventional Jewish places, times and persons. And their determination to love guaranteed they'd always be heading in the right direction. No wonder St. Augustine would later teach, "Love, then do what you will!"

We'll discover where our faith-road leads only if we're faithful to the person who first chose that road.

(05-07-98)