I will admit that sometimes conversations about restoration of the early church strike me as a bit dull. In my time, I’ve heard some stodgy, unexciting, seemingly-endless restoration-centered debates about worship practices, some of them meticulously dissecting such minutia as whether or not Paul would have approved of a woman passing a communion tray from front to back instead of side to side. What a travesty! When we see restoration of the ancient church as stodgy, we have missed the central aspect of life on The Way in the first century. Life in the ancient church was anything but stodgy.
If we want to restore something of the early church, let’s try to grasp the life-giving celebration of the Holy Spirit inherent in the life of early Christians. They were being persecuted – imprisoned and even killed for their faith – and yet the Christian life was full of a fresh wind we have sometimes suffocated with our relentless arguments about what early Christians did or did not do when they gathered for a few hours each week. The New Testament itself provides little detail about weekly gatherings, but what we do have is story after story after story about the mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit as the church crossed boundaries in an exciting journey.
Let’s talk about restoration of that!
Early Christians provide a model for us – they show us what it means to celebrate when the Jesus Way crosses cultural boundaries and is planted in new places in fresh ways. Early Jesus followers had to continually renegotiate traditions that were really important to them. In Acts 11-15, for example, Peter was challenged to lead the community in redefining lifelong traditions about unclean foods and unclean people; it was not an easy process, and his initial response to changing traditions was, in essence, “No Way Lord!” Later, however, when he and other believers came to see the power of the Holy Spirit working in the lives of Gentile people, they were celebratory that the Lord had made a way when they thought there was no way.
And they praised God!
They celebrated that the Spirit was moving them across boundaries that didn’t fit their previous patterns. They were happy to have been wrong. They embraced something new.
Early Christians learned to expect good news “to be continued” in an imaginative and exciting journey. They learned they should not expect good news to be confined to one place and time. So when we lose our imagination for a fresh new vision of good news in our time and place, we do not understand what it means to restore the early church. Today, like in the early church, good news still brings a fresh wind of hope for ongoing movement toward new creation.
Karl Paul Donfried wrote, “The one thing the New Testament forbids us to do is to treat it as a static document to be used as a set of proof- texts for instant solutions to complex and controversial contemporary problems. To misuse the New Testament in this way is to deny its dynamic character and to fail to realize that the Word has to be applied in a specific context . . . . A static interpretation of the New Testament is dependent on a frozen Christology.”
The story of Jesus is not frozen. The story of the Spirit is not frozen. The story of the early church is not frozen. It is a story of incarnation and can be embodied in every culture and period of time; it’s that journey Christians join.
We haven’t joined a pattern!
We’ve joined a Way forward, and the Holy Spirit is in the lead.
What does it look like to embrace restoration of the ancient church? It means asking ourselves what the early Christians asked: What does it look like when the kingdom of heaven is on the move, crossing boundaries, surprising us, and calling us to something fresh and new?
That’s a restoration conversation worth having.