Lectionary 10 B
June 7, 2015
Most of Jesus’ ministry took place in rural places – the fishing villages, small towns, and open country and wilderness places of Galilee. Yet the growth of the early church was mostly in urban areas. To begin with, the church is centered in Jerusalem and Paul goes to places like Antioch, Ephesus, Philippi, Athens, Corinth, and finally Rome. But Christianity came to Rome long before Paul or Peter ever got there. Paul meets Aquila and Priscilla, Christians who have come from Rome, while he is in Corinth. But that very early mission work that brought Christianity all the way to Rome is not recorded for us. We just know that it happened and that it happened very early.
And why should this new faith spread so quickly in the cities of the Roman Empire? Three years ago I went on a pilgrimage to Turkey, and I got to see some of the remains of those Roman cities. We saw the lovely marble public building – theatres, stadiums, libraries, baths and city halls. What we didn’t see – what we couldn’t see – were the places most people lived in those first century Roman cities. And there were many, many people in those cities. Roman conquest meant that much of the land in conquered territories was used to grow food that was sent back to Rome or to the many other urban centers of the empire. Local farmers mostly lost their land to foreign aristocrats. Some of those farmers became the day laborers working the harvest on land they had once owned. Most migrated to the cities and became the growing underclass of Roman urban society. The Pax Romana, enforced by the Roman legions stationed in conquered territories, was a system of harsh inequalities with aristocrats living comfortable lives in their protected villas while the poor crowded into the Roman urban centers. And conditions in those first century cities were horrendous. Population density exceeded that of places like modern-day Calcutta. And buildings were never higher than four or five stories. The buildings were poorly constructed, with the top floor having the lowest rent and extended families crowding into these apartments. Such crowding meant that perhaps weekly in any given city, one of those buildings would collapse from too much weight, killing everyone who was inside. Besides such unsafe buildings, sewers were primitive at best, and in many cities the streets were simply open sewers with human and animal waste together with rotting food simply thrown into the street. With all this, disease and death were commonplace. To maintain their populations, Roman cities needed a study influx of people from the country and conquered territories.
In that society, extended families lived together and took care of each other. It was the only effective safety net for the poor. But in those urban centers, life was always so uncertain – disease could nearly wipe out an entire extended family in a matter of days or weeks. And without that extended family, life in the city was even more precarious. Estimates are that your life expectancy after you became the sole surviving member of your family was about one year. A person with no family for support in those Roman cities would have had trouble finding work or a place to live or food to eat or protection from bandits.
And that brings us to our gospel. Think of what it meant for those without any family to be called brothers or sisters or mothers by Jesus or by members of the early church. We don’t find that “family” language in the Old Testament, but when you read Paul’s letters, the family imagery is all over. And the early Christian communities were very small – 20 to 25 people would be a large gathering. Within a city there would have been quite a number of “house churches.” And these churches became a kind of new family for early Christians, and for those who had been left without any other family, this new family was the “safety net” and support necessary for survival in that world. Sociologist Rodney Stark writes, “To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.” Christianity made survival possible, because following the way of Jesus always meant caring for the needs of the neighbor – think of the Good Samaritan – think of Zacchaeus – think of the parable of the sheep and the goats – think of the Rich man and Lazarus – again and again Jesus instructs his disciples to care for the needs of others, and again and again Jesus welcomes the outsiders into the community that is being created around him. And he calls them all sisters and brothers. Creating families for people with no family was one of the pieces of very good news that helped spread Christianity through the urban centers of first century Rome.
And how does that good news translate for us today? How does the good news that we are family – brothers and sisters of one another – make our lives different? How are we “saved” in the here and now, because we are sisters and brothers of one another? In the first century, having a new family for support probably drew some of the poor and some of those who had lost their families into those early churches; but people like Lydia, Philemon, and many others were well off and even wealthy; yet they were drawn to Jesus because he opened a way of life for them that went counter to the terrible injustices of Roman society – he opened a way for them to live, not out of selfish or self-serving motives, but in way that carried forward God’s will in their daily lives. And I believe that is part of what draws us today as well. In following Jesus we are released from always being caught up in the unjust patterns of our world that bring suffering and struggle to those around us, and we are released from looking only to our own Interests, and we are drawn to pay attention to the struggles and concerns of others. In following Jesus, we are brothers and sisters for one another, and with our brother Jesus we can become the means God uses to make God’s justice, peace and compassion happen in this world. In following Jesus we can become the instruments of joy and hope and love and grace and justice and peace and compassion, so that God’s will might flourish for all our sisters and brothers, here and throughout the whole world. AMEN.