A Series of Essays “On the Business of Religion” by the Rev. Know-it-all
Essay Two: “On the Welcoming Spirit of the Early church”
Return with me to a simpler, grubbier, smellier time in History: ancient Rome around 190 AD, a Sunday morning. We visit the Subura, a vermin-infested stinking district in the heart of old Rome. Around you are five, even ten story tenements wedged in so tight that sun rarely hit the narrow stinking streets. They are prone to burn to the ground or just collapse. Meet two residents of the Subura, Gaius Introspecticus and his friend Narcissus Maximus. They are up early, as most Romans were, and Gaius mentions to his friend that there is a relatively new religion in town, a sort of Jewish sect that isn’t mostly Jews. They have a meeting every Sunday morning in the spacious house of Senator Superbus Ebrius Pazzo on the very chic Palatine Hill quite near the palace and the Great Racetrack.
One hears that all are welcome. A trip to the Palatine across town might be just the thing. At least it would get them out of the stinking rat hole they live in and there was bound to be a decent meal. So, they climb the Palatine, find the house and are welcomed by a rather burly sort of man, a slave, a sort of usher, called a porter or ostiarius. He’s clearly just a slave but is given great deference by those entering as if he were somehow important. it turns out they don’t just hire or buy a porter, they ordain them! On with our story. In comes an older fellow. They all defer to him call him “Papa, or Abba Victor.” They are all treating this Victor as if he were some famous gladiator. The amazing thing is that he doesn’t look very Roman. He is dark skinned! In fact, he comes from Africa and one of his parents was a black-skinned Berber!
Anyway, the service commences with a short prayer, some readings follow from the Jewish holy book and then some newer stuff written by some missionaries from Judea and Galilee. Then this “Big Daddy" Victor gets up to speak and he is quite interesting. He claims that some Jewish rabbi was executed by the 12th legion in Jerusalem about a hundred and fifty years ago but rose from the dead. There was an old fellow in the congregation, must have been 90 if he were a day. He said that his grandfather had been in Jerusalem when it happened. As a boy, the man’s old grandad had seen the empty tomb and his aunt and uncle had run into this Jesus when they were travelling on the road to the coast! It was all getting very interesting and there were a few loaves of bread and I could smell wine and was getting hungry.
Just when things were getting interesting, this burly usher fellow, a slave, ordained or not, asked me and Narcissus ‒ Roman citizens mind you! ‒ to kindly leave. The rest of the service was private and only baptized believers in good standing were welcome… WELL, I NEVER…THE NERVE OF THESE PEOPLE!!! I know what was going on. There were more women there than men and I smelled wine. They were going to have an orgy. I just know it, and us, not welcome!!! There were a lot of people there who were slaves. They weren’t there because they were rich. I bet they were there for some other reason in that swank neighborhood at some Senator’s house with only a few people rich enough to foot the bill. Next time the city magistrates want to round these people up, I’m going to tell them everything I know. That should fix them! Cut us out of the orgy. Just try! Ha!
The early church wasn’t as welcoming as you might think they didn’t want to expose the faithful to unnecessary risks. They didn’t need members. They wanted disciples. They weren’t there to entertain people who needed to feel welcome. They wanted to open heaven’s gates to those seeking salvation and those who were willing to be martyrs in the arena. Christianity was noted for its charity and kindness to all, not for its inclusive and welcoming spirit. It attracted followers because of its charity, moral example and bravery, not by good marketing and welcoming services. On the contrary, they were always telling the Romans that if they didn’t repent, they were all going to hell! That’s why they threw them to the lions. Now that’s entertainment!