Needless to say, I have been away from my desk for a few days. No crises here on the home front to report; it was more a case of bad calendar management. Since I posted last Wednesday I have been off on two teaching jaunts, a hike interrupted by a big old gator, my annual physical (see aforementioned alligator below), and a St. Patrick's Day party. I do not drink, but too many green cookies and bedtime past ten are enough to create a hangover. So it is good to be back at routine, whatever that is. Tomorrow we have the Florida primary, so I may be posting from the end of long line.
As I have two new topic tracks started at the same time (morality on Mondays and Sacraments on Saturday) I am struck in my reading by the complex development tracks of both traditions. Formal Church statements on matters of morality are worded in such a way as to make them sound as if St. Peter himself was surrounded by stenographers in his study in Rome in 60 A.D. Issuing dictates on birth control, Lenten fasting, and admission to communion of the divorced and remarried.
In truth, we do not know exactly how first generation Christians thought about morals. The first written indication of what Christians believed about anything comes from St. Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians written around 50 A.D. This is the first book of the New Testament, chronologically speaking. By contrast, the Gospel of St. John may have been written as late as 100 A.D. Paul's letter, written as the Christian mission had already spread beyond Israel west toward Gentile Rome, gives us a picture of a church--actually a network of small faith communities--bound together by an intense belief that the Lord Jesus had come once in very recent history to conquer evil, and would come again very soon to take them up into the new and eternal Jerusalem.
1 Thessalonians might never have been written had early Christians not started worrying about the fates of people who died before the Second Coming. Paul's answer--that at the sound of the trumpet their graves would open and the dead would be taken up first, then the living would follow--tells a great deal about the mindset of that first generation. It was intensely futuristic, and its members fully expected to see Jesus, the Son of Man, return in their lifetimes. It is interesting that Paul's advice on the dead mentions none of our common beliefs today on the destiny of the soul or a purgatorial option, or for that matter, that man was even divided as a body and soul.
There is also a tone in Paul's early letters that the living Christians expected to be taken up in glory, and morally speaking, one might wonder on what foundation they would hold such belief. They must have shared an experience that to them indicated a readiness to be taken up into the Clouds of Glory. In all likelihood this would have been a baptismal washing that accomplished two things: (1) like John the Baptist's ritual, the washing was a renunciation of all evil in anticipation of a coming cataclysmic overturn of the world order, and (2) moving beyond John's ritual meaning, enabled the believer to endorse for himself and others that he or she was "with Jesus."
This phrase, “with Jesus,” would go on to have great significance in St. Mark’s Gospel fifteen years later. In that Gospel the term, used literally and in multiple other ways, implies many things—a conversion, obviously, witnessing the signs and wonders, hearing and learning his teachings, and perhaps most of all, going with him to die in Jerusalem (Mark 8: 34-38) Equally important was the sense that those “with Jesus” would live a certain way reflective of the Master and his own example. Just a cursory reading of 1 Thessalonians gives us an idea of what “the way” would look like—and the conduct and morals of the those with Jesus will be elaborated upon by Paul himself in later letters as well as the other pastoral letters of the New Testament, and finally the Gospels themselves.
There is another point in the Thessalonians’ text that bears reflection: specifically, who was responsible for the local teaching and maintenance of Church doctrine and morals? One would think—correctly, I might add—that this is the proper role of the bishop, and such would be case today. We think of the apostles as first bishops, and this is true—they were the first witnesses of the Resurrection and protectors of that tradition. Historically, however, there is no evidence that all twelve (Matthias having replaced Judas Iscariot) went beyond the Jewish-Christian region of Palestine. Paul’s later title “Apostle to the Gentiles” reinforces the probability that the Twelve saw their first responsibility of mission to the faith from which they had come, Judaism. The model of a powerful local bishop came into full play in the early second century.
So in this first generation the “leader,” in matters of living the way would have been the church founder, and throughout the very early Gentile mission that would have been Paul. His pattern of mission seems to have been the establishment of a series of new faith communities in major cities across Greece and eventually to Rome. (When you consider where he visited and established communities, he was evidently a man of significant vision—Thessalonica or Salonica is today the second largest city in Greece.)
Unfortunately, his method of sustaining these churches is uncertain—spiritually and financially-- and, from some evidence in his own letters, not always successful. There is no record he established residential leaders, i.e. bishops. Neither the function nor individual names are mentioned in Paul. Paul had faith in the Spirit of God (the Holy Spirit) and the good will of his flocks. Theologians sometimes refer to this as the Charismatic Age when the churches were energized by the gifts of the Spirit, as we hear of “speaking in tongues” and “prophesying” taking place. In the next century these ecstatic practices are replaced by strong teaching bishops.
Paul did what he could through his famous letters or Epistles. In many cases these letters were “problem driven” over questions of theological matters, as in the future of the dead or the meaning of justification, or over matters of behavior. Paul addresses moral behavioral matters in an ad hoc fashion, as they are brought to him. Across the board he addresses questions as diverse as drunkenness at the Eucharistic banquet to incest. His common principle seems be maintaining an exemplary communal lifestyle appropriate to those baptized into the way, as well as anticipation of the final judgmental coming of Jesus in glory.
Paul’s list of “firsts” is impressive in Christian history, but today we have recognized his place as the first Christian teacher to put to paper an idea of how the baptized Christian is to live in the sense that we would call moral. The Church would reflect upon his letters—making them, in fact, the first sacred texts of the New Testament that we know of by circulating them through all communities of the way. These letters, of course, would be well known to the four evangelists (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John) and next week we will examine how Paul’s letters, along with greater experience and inspired reflection, impacted the Gospel writers in their treatments of Jesus’ moral outlook.
For those interested in St. Paul, my own library is a little thin here. I still use my 1978 text, Seven Pauline Letters by Peter Ellis, for reference. Of course, there is four decades of more recent research available, but Ellis is as good a place as any to begin your search, if so inclined.