The spectacular growth of the Early Church is a riddle to us. There was no evangelism, no hospitality, and no choirs.
Everything about the Church was hidden or defaced; its message deliberately misrepresented, its leadership and members in hiding, and its Messiah slandered. Yet, the growth was exponential.
Historians have identified a number of factors, but I wish to mention two. Proceeding, from these, I would say we rediscover a very basic, prominent and, I would argue, somewhat neglected place: our baptism.
In his astonishing book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, historian Alan Kreider points to the experience of witnessing Christians giving each other the kiss of peace before they died in the Colosseum as having a profound—what we would call—viral societal effect.
This was especially so when it involved people of obviously different social classes. This reoriented the societal mind. It introduced a thought of living that was beyond their imagination or horizon. It spoke volumes about what this group believed.
The second factor identified was pandemics. Yes, pandemics.
There are a number of well documented stories of Christians coming out of hiding, at great risk, to attend the dying or the dead. Some of the stories describe Christians walking into a city as others fled the other way.
The Christian fearlessness in the face of death was one thing, certainly convincing. The greater element was their obvious compassion for humanity.
In the teaching of the Elders of the Early Church, they often point to Baptism as the source of their love, their kiss of peace, and their unity.
Though our teaching, especially in Western Christianity, has focused on what the individual who is baptized receives (forgiveness of sins and new life) in baptism —which is absolutely important—the Early Church also emphasized what the baptized enters (the World to Come, the Communion of Saints). More, the giving of the Spirit at baptism assured that love was in our hearts, towards each other and towards all creation.
The love that moved our Saviour on the cross is in our hearts, connects our fellowship with each other, and creates the horizon of our compassion (Romans 5:5).
When they looked at each other, Christians saw more than just fellow members of a like-minded religious organization. They saw family members of a New Inheritance in the Realm of God.
When they saw the rest of humanity and, certainly, the rest of creation, they saw the recipients of God’s compassion and the horizon of a New Heaven and a New Earth. All of these things, as we see in a foretaste from Paul in Galatians 3:26–28, are articulated in the teaching of the Church’s Elders.
If we are baptized, we are family, with one another as Christians, but also with the rest of a creation waiting to be reborn. We, too, like Jesus, can have the heart and the courage to lay down our lives for each other and even for those who are not a part of our fellowship.
This is our way. It is the way of death into life that is the way of Jesus and the way of baptism.
Our work together as Church is sacred and it proceeds from Jesus’ presence in the font, not, I should think, from our agreements, planning, or best efforts, as important and as sacred as those are. Though we can never neglect the latter, it is the former that gives life and, when we forget that, we forget who we really are.
When the pandemic hit, when the Colosseum was about to kill the Early Christians, the spiritual reality of the eternal family and the ontological change that had been made through Jesus propelled so much more than any human agreement or arrangement.
That does not mean that we can put such things aside. It only means that we must always remember their relative importance.
As an endnote, I should say that the Indigenous concept of treaty is something similar to the concept of family making in baptism. Treaty makes family in a prayerful arrangement. It is not like Western law, where treaty making involves the identification of responsibilities, cessation of certain authority and jurisdiction, and, most often, the giving up of land.
In many cases, the injury of this violation of treaty to the Indigenous way was compounded when Indigenous people were baptized and still treated as aliens in their own lands by institutions that had invaded their jurisdictions (and stole their children).
I think our baptism calls us to a better way in the world we are entering. I believe it commits us to hope and work for a better future.
Blessings, dear relatives.
-The Most Rev. Mark MacDonald