Jared Witt - July 18, 2019
There was a time when Christians weren’t called Christians. Rather, they were called followers of The Way.
One day, a famous follower of The Way was interrogated by an official of the state named Rusticus, who wanted to know if this riff-raffy hodgepodge of misfits had some kind of subversive intent. He hurried the interrogatee through the boilerplate questions about the group, you know, doctrines and behaviors and what have you, but what really seemed to concern him was this seemingly mundane question: “Where do your gatherings meet?”
Whatever the agenda of this strange new cult, it would put his mind at ease to know that their meetings were at least hidden away in some officially sanctioned religious house. Then there would be little to bother with in it.
You see, the state had grown wise over the generations and could even be said to harbor a certain fondness for the religious houses. They provided the people with a necessary steam valve for their frustrations, a container for their aspirations, and a somewhat artificial sense of equality in the world. In other words, they kept the people out of trouble, as far as disturbing the real world of business and taxes.
But these new upstarts, who follow this Semitic man, Christus, who, it was said, could not be killed, where did their gatherings meet?
Puzzled by the emphasis on what seemed to him the most boring of Rusticus’ questions, the follower answered with a sigh, “Our gatherings meet wherever each one prefers, I suppose.”
Red in the face and not about to be brushed off, the official pressed him, “Tell me where you meet! In what places, precisely.”
Another sigh, “Well, personally, I’ve been living above the baths since I’ve been in Rome. So I host gatherings with whoever wants to come and hear the Gospel there at the baths.”
Apparently, Rusticus saw something highly inflammatory about that very factual and geographical response, which is why we now refer to that follower as “Justin Martyr.”
In the first century, it wasn’t uncommon for followers of “The Way” to meet in the villa of the most well-to-do member, an atrium or breezeway around a town center, a place of business of one of the disciples. The setting was an afterthought. What mattered was this new Way of life. They initiated newcomers into the community by dipping them in water, a symbol of their dying to the Roman values of material consumption and self-promotion as well as the constant violence and land acquisition that was needed to sustain those values. Initiates were raised up out of the waters to a new way of simplicity, peacemaking, and parting with possessions.
This new Way was practiced by very tangible means. For instance, everyone was expected to contribute all that they could both to care for the community and to ensure that they weren’t relying on the sort of treasures which “moth and rust destroy” for the wellbeing of their households. The idea was, whether you were rich or poor, all would be taken care of, wherever these communities gathered, and there would be no need to worry about the loss of your own contribution, because God always had more to go around, and there were others who had your back.
Eventually, as we all know, Rome would absorb this movement of simplicity and distort its values and behaviors, as emperors sought to co-opt the symbols of Christianity to support their expansionist agenda, and priests sought to relig-ify and relegate its message into the sort of highly specialized and separated spaces, like cathedrals and monasteries, that Rusticus would’ve loved.
Why the history lesson? Because people sometimes tell me that the concept of a church in a brewery is “new” or “different” to them. And as flattered as I am at their implication that we're somehow being original or rogue, I struggle to communicate back to them that gathering a community of followers in an ordinary setting, where we live our normal Monday through Saturday lives, is the oldest kind of church there is. It’s these new-fangled concepts like cathedrals and monasteries that are so green and unproven. And I’m just not sure that they’ve been a very helpful innovation as far as living Jesus’ Way is concerned.
Change the setting, and you change the vision.
But whether it was the early desert fathers abandoning those earliest sanctuaries for something truer, or St. Francis whipping off his merchant father’s expensive clothes and communing with "brother bird" in the forest, or Martin Luther hanging his grievances against church-ianity on the town square facing side of the Wittenberg Castle Church door, every movement, which has ever revived and recalled the people of Jesus Christ back to their authentic origin has involved some sort of shift away from opulent and sanctimonious spaces back into the common, day-to-day spaces where people actually live.
Like a lotus flower growing up out of a dung hill, the transformational vibration of the true Way of Jesus Christ keeps busting out from behind the temple curtains and double doors behind which Rusticus and his ilk have sought to keep it safely contained.
Cheers and Peace,
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