Here and Now: Early Christians

The remaining posts in this series will be through the lens of the Christian tradition.  Upcoming posts will make selected and brief “whistle stops” in Christian history to illustrate how people have sought to live in the present moment.

We begin with the early Christians, essentially before 313 a.d. when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and the nature of Christianity became intertwined (positively and negatively) with institutional and imperialistic expressions.  The roughly 250 year period from the close of the New Testament to the Council of Nicea reveals key insights for here-and-now living. [1]

We begin with ‘The Didaché (c. 110 a.d.).  The Christians of the second century CE did not abandon their belief in the imminent return of Christ, but they had to “reset” their eschatalogical clocks, and tend more to here-and-now concerns and necessities.  The Didaché was likely the earliest document outside of Scripture describing how they sought to do that.

The document (probably used in catechesis) sought to show the path of life, in contrast to the way of death.  It has three sections: ethics, rituals, and organization.  All three are aimed to describe and direct abundant living here and now.  It was the early church’s way of saying that while Christians had their eyes on the heavens (in anticipation of Christ’s return), they must also have their feet on the ground.  Daily living is eternal life made real here-and-now.

Not long afterwards, the monastic movement began in the deserts of the Middle East.  Sometimes misunderstood (and misused) as an escape from life, it was actually a means chosen by some to be more engaged with life.  The word ‘monos’ means singular.  The monastic intent was to live in the present moment without duplicity and distraction.  It was a way of choosing “the one thing needful” and making that choice the basis, reference point, and motivation for all of life.

In the monastic movement, three things stood out as incentives to here-and-now living.  First, younger Christians would seek out ammas and abbas asking them to “give me a word that I might live.”  Second, some of the abbas and ammas held conferences to share their wisdom with groups of people.  And third, they lived in communities (cenobitic monasticism) where they supported one another in godly living.  All three things formed and fostered living in the oresent moment.

For reasons like these (e.g. Didaché and monasticism) later Christians have looked to the early-Christian era as a time when foundational dimensions of Christian living were messaged and modeled.  It is no accident that a growing number of Christians today are looking anew at the early Christians, and finding in them (as others have previously done) a wealth of wisdom and guidance for living life here and now. [2]

[1] To look more broadly and deeply at the early Christians, I recommend Henry Chadwick’s book ‘The Early Church’ (Penguin Books, 1967).  For a good overview of early monasticism, Thomas Merton’s ‘The Wisdom of the Desert’ (New Directions, 1960) is an excellent resource.

[2] I note these excellent books about the New Monasticism: John Michael Talbot, ‘The Universal Monk (Liturgical Press, 2011) and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, ‘New Monasticism’ (Brazos Press, 2008).

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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