By Dan White Jr.
There seems to be a wide spread feeling of romanticism in many of the minds of modern Christians that the early church was; firing on all cylinders, sharing everything in common, passing the love around to each other and totally committed to God. I recently heard a well known author say during his sermon “we need to get back to the church in Acts.” I also just came across a promotion for an Acts 2 themed church training conference. I think well-meaning Christians have a cleanly-framed early church utopia floating around in their heads as the picture of what community looked like in the early church.
I’m sorry to crumble your picture of the early church but it has to come down. In the first few chapters in Acts we read about an unbelievable event; the entrance of the Holy Spirit into the lives of those who believe Jesus is the Messiah. You can read those chapters and recount the crazy supernatural manifestations occurring on a large scale. But those early chapters do not give us a correct view of the early church. They do help us understand the opening event of the church that will never be duplicated again; essentially because it was the beginning. It was the first time the Holy Spirit comes to planet earth to dwell amongst His people, it’s the first time the gospel is given freely to Jews and Gentiles, it’s the first time Jesus is embraced by outsiders that He is truly God. It’s a succession of firsts.
Fast forward to the end of Acts and we see the intentional planting of a church being talked about. After the wave of the Acts 2 event has passed, a semi-organized initiative is started to plant a church in Acts 18. That church is in Corinth.
One of the first real church plants is the Corinthian church. Suddenly the opening event loses its luster in only a few years time. Jews and Gentiles start finding some distance from that initial Pentecost event and now find themselves in the trenches with each other. It’s no longer Jesus and I; it’s becoming Jesus and us. Community becomes the great squeeze on the life of Jesus followers. It’s a little easier to like Jesus than it is to like Jesus in other people. When passionate Jesus followers are mashed together to become a new family with a mission in the city of Corinth it starts getting messy. This is the reality of community. Put people with different personalities and different cultural backgrounds in the same spiritual family, commission them to build for the Kingdom of God together and it starts to get messy real quickly.
Our modern expectations that community is like going back to the Garden of Eden are naive. I’ve become a bit more understanding of these naive expectations because I believe most Christians have not experienced real tethered-community. Sure they've had close friends or served on leadership teams or attended a small group of some kind but the covenantal nature of community alluded them. The bubble of romanticism must be popped to embrace the reality of work required to build community.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 sets up a beautiful equation. Somehow the very mess of community can become the catalyst for Holiness. Paul pulls out the fire hose and unloads a sermon on the topic of love. In 1 Cor 13:4 this Love-Sermon unearths “envy, arrogance, selfishness, pride over our accomplishments, not speaking well of others, getting miffed too quickly, being easily offended, holding a grudge against someone, not protecting someone’s reputation, not choosing to trust each other, believing the worst about others and giving up on someone’s potential to change.” All of the pain, pride and anger that community can stir up in the darkness of our flesh now has the possibility in the light to be addressed with scalpel of love. Authentic community causes us to think deeply about how our ambitions, drive, motives and choices hurt or help those we are in relationship with.
Learn to let go of your expectations on Community that you think are biblical. Dive into the mess of shared-life and mission with other people. Let God through others address those parts of you that need the surgery of Divine love. This is the Holy Mess and there's nothing sexy about it.