The Story of the Early Church

The Story of the Early Church

Read this familiar story with a fresh perspective.

Note: This article has been excerpted from The Story of God, the Story of Us: Getting Lost and Found in the Bible, by Sean Gladding. The book is a narrative telling of the Bible, and this passage depicts the story of the Church in Acts. The woman, the host, is telling the story of God to the ekklesia, or church, in her home. Included in the meeting is a guest, the merchant. Read this familiar story with fresh eyes.

"The twelve disciples called everyone together and said, 'It wouldn't be right for us to neglect preaching the word of God in order to serve at table. So choose seven men from among you whom everyone trusts, men full of the Holy Spirit and good sense, and we'll assign them to the task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer, and to speaking God's word.'

"Perhaps the twelve thought that waiting at tables was somehow beneath them, or that preaching was more important. How quickly they had forgotten what Jesus had said to them at that last meal they shared together,

Kings like to throw their weight around and people in authority like to give themselves fancy titles. It's not going to be that way with you. Let the senior among you become like the junior; let the leader act the part of the servant.

For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves at table? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

"And yet, there they were saying, 'It wouldn't be right for us to neglect preaching in order to serve at table.' They had not listened to Jesus.

"But others understood. Among the seven people chosen to serve the widows were Stephen and Philip. Stephen later stood before the Sanhedrin and told the Story, and was stoned to death for it, becoming the first martyr of the church. And Philip took the good news to Samaria, even telling the Story to a man from Ethiopia—someone from the ends of the earth—baptizing him before he returned to Africa. These men who waited at table acted as apostles, doing just what Jesus had told the disciples to; whereas the disciples stayed in Jerusalem and argued about who was truly welcome in the kingdom.

"But they did finally learn, and went their separate ways, taking the good news of the kingdom, the Story of God, wherever the Spirit led them." The host's body slumps forward. "For many of them, telling the Story has cost them their life. Peter was killed in Rome after the Great Fire, crucified just as his Lord was. Paul was beheaded; being a Roman citizen spared him from crucifixion."

The ekklesia still feels these losses deeply, and tears come to the eyes of those listening to the story. The merchant is surprised to find himself wiping tears from his own eyes. "Yet you still choose to give your allegiance to Christ. I think you are as remarkable as your Jesus."

The woman shakes her head and says with a sad smile, "We do not think so. We have found a way of living, a common life that is beautiful and, yes, costly at times. We share a deep hope and a joy from being a small part of the work of new creation that God is doing. We experience the same sense of koinonia that those first ekklesias did." She perks up. "Let me tell you of life in the early days of the church.

"Those first believers committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, sharing a common meal and praying. Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person's need was met. They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People looked on and liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were being saved.

"As they shared what they had with each other, so that there was not a needy person among them, they recalled the stories of their ancestors in the wilderness, and God's provision of manna, so everyone always had enough—God continued to give them daily bread.

"As time went on they embraced the mission of God, telling the Story wherever they went, finally living life together in the way that God had always intended, as God had given in Torah. They saw before their very eyes the words of Deuteronomy become reality: 'There will be no poor among you, since the LORD will surely bless you in the land which the LORD your God is giving you … if only you listen obediently to the voice of the LORD your God, and carefully keep Torah.' "Other people looked on at their common life and were amazed: there was nothing in their culture that could explain what they were seeing. And the same is true for many of us." She turns to the newcomers. "We were drawn to the ekklesia because of the life we saw our friends living. For in the ekklesias, people who should not be friends become friends, breaking bread together, sharing all they have with each other, unashamed to call each other sister and brother."

The merchant says, "The philosophers of my people write of the friendship you describe—and which I see you all share—as the highest ideal of human love, which few if any could ever achieve. Yet here you are, fishermen and businesswomen, slaves and masters, young and old, sitting at the same table together, sharing the same bread, and drinking the same cup. You are … not the kind of people the philosophers thought could live this way."

The woman laughs. "It's no wonder that Paul wrote, 'Take a good look friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don't see many of "the brightest and the best" among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn't it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these "nobodies" to expose the hollow pretensions of the "somebodies"? That makes it quite clear that none of you can get by with blowing your own horn before God. Everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Christ Jesus.'

"The early churches certainly were communities of ragamuffins, but people kept joining them, drawn by what God was doing in their midst. They found themselves standing square in the middle of God's covenant promises to Abraham, God blessing the nations of the world through God's people. They may have been a bunch of ragamuffins, but there were some remarkable men and women in the church."

"Especially women," her old friend says, lifting his cup to toast her. He turns to the merchant. "Besides Dorcas, who our host briefly mentioned, there was also Lydia, who was head of her household. When Paul told the Story in Philippi, Lydia heard him and gave her allegiance to Jesus. When she returned to her hometown, Thyatira, she told the Story there, and the whole community became believers. As head of the household, she became the leader of the church that met in her home—like my dear friend here.

"In Thessalonica there were some prominent Greek women who studied the Scriptures with Paul and became believers. And Priscilla and her husband Aquila taught Apollos, a man well-versed in the Scriptures. Priscilla corrected his misunderstanding of the Story before he went to Corinth to lead the church there. Since the beginning, God has used both men and women to lead the ekklesias."

The woman smiles and raises her cup to her old friend, and then addresses the ekklesia. "My friends, as always it has been a joy to share this meal with you. But now it is getting late. Before we depart for our homes, I would like to read from one more letter." She reaches behind her for one of her precious scrolls. "This is a letter Peter wrote to circulate among the ekklesias, to encourage and exhort us in our allegiance to Jesus—the allegiance which cost him his life. Let us listen and take his words to heart." She unrolls the scroll, and reads.

"So clean house! Make a clean sweep of malice and pretense, envy and hurtful talk. You've had a taste of God. Now, like infants at the breast, drink deep of God's pure kindness. Then you'll grow up mature and whole in God.

Welcome to the living Stone, the source of life. The workmen took one look and threw it out; God set it in the place of honor. Present yourselves as building stones for the construction of a sanctuary vibrant with life, in which you'll serve as holy priests offering Christ-approved lives up to God. The Scriptures provide precedent:

Look! I'm setting a stone in Zion,
a cornerstone in the place of honor.
Whoever trusts in this stone as a foundation
will never have cause to regret it.
To you who trust him, he's a Stone to be proud of, but to those who refuse to trust him,
The stone the workmen threw out is now the chief foundation stone.
For the untrusting it's
… a stone to trip over,
a boulder blocking the way.
They trip and fall because they refuse to obey,
just as predicted.

But you are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God's instruments to do God's work and speak out for God, to tell others of the night-and-day difference God made for you—from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted."

The woman returns the scroll to its place, and then offers some parting words to her friends. "Let us remember who we are—and whose we are. And let us go to tell the Story, to be God's priests in the world, to bring others into an experience of the new exodus, the return from exile—no longer estranged from God and from each other—and to partner in the work of new creation!"

As the ekklesia makes their way into the night, the merchant lingers. He takes the arm of the old man as he passes, and then turns to the woman. Looking them both in the eye he says, "I have one more question to ask you."

The three talk late into the night in hushed, sober tones. One question turns into two and then three as the merchant continues to wrestle with the Story and the implications of accepting the invitation he hears to find his place in it.

—Excerpted from The Story of God, the Story of Us: Getting Lost and Found in the Bible by Sean Gladding. Copyright 2010 by Sean Gladding. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.

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