Next time you go to church try not to think about me and God. Think about us and God instead.
Why? Because that’s how the early Christians thought. And it may be the main reason that they triumphed over Greco-Roman paganism in the face of overwhelming odds.
Historians are trained to rely on primary sources before turning to the secondary reflections of contemporary scholars. Consider the following first-hand observations about Christian community from Roman antiquity. We will begin in the fourth century and work our way back to the New Testament.
Our first witness is a real piece of work. His name says it all: Julian the Apostate. His uncle was Constantine, the first Roman emperor who professed allegiance to Christianity. Julian rejected Jesus and converted to paganism. He became emperor in A.D. 361. Julian then embarked upon a mission to turn the Roman Empire back to pagan religion. Here is an excerpt from a letter Julian wrote to a pagan buddy. Julian recognizes that in his efforts to resuscitate paganism he must first figure out why the Christians have been so successful.
His explanation for the rise of Christianity (he calls it “atheism”) is crystal clear:
Why do we not observe that it is the Christians’ benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done the most to increase atheism? When the impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us!
In Julian’s eyes it was Christian social solidarity — not Christian theology — that attracted hoards to the Jesus movement. Monotheism did exert some appeal to persons paralyzed with fear in the face of a multitude of gods and goddesses, spirits and demons.
For the most part, however, it was not Christian beliefs that encouraged thousands to endure social ostracization and risk state persecution by joining the Jesus movement, as the church proceeded to spread like a holy fire throughout the Roman world. It was Christian behavior. It was Christian community.
Our second ancient witness, Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (c. A.D. 250), put it like this, in what is our first surviving commentary on the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples:
Before all things, the Teacher of peace and Master of unity did not wish prayer to be offered individually and privately as one would pray only for himself when he prays. We do not say: ‘My Father, who art in heaven,’ nor ‘Give me this day my bread,’ nor does each one ask that only his debt be forgiven him and that he be led not into temptation and that he be delivered from evil for himself alone. Our prayer is public and common, and when we pray we pray not for one but for the whole people, because we, the whole people, are one.
Cyprian sure makes a whole lot of that little pronoun “our,” which occurs again and again in the Lord’s Prayer! I cannot help but get the impression that this towering North African church leader and martyr would have been more than a little bit puzzled by our preoccupation in our churches with Jesus as a personal Savior.
The Apostle Paul would have been, as well.
Yes, Jesus was Paul’s personal Savior. And He is mine and yours, as well. (No Biola professor would dare to challenge that eternal truth!) But Paul just doesn’t seem to be as consumed with all this “me and Jesus” stuff as we are in evangelical America.
Again, it’s all in the pronouns. In his letters, Paul refers to Jesus as “our Lord”— that is, as the Lord of God’s people as a group — 53 times. Only once, in contrast, does the expression “my Lord” appear in Paul’s writings (Phil. 3:8). This speaks volumes about the priorities of the great apostle.
Paul’s overarching concern in his ministry went far beyond the personal spiritual pilgrimage of his individual converts. Paul’s driving passion was to establish spiritually vibrant, relationally healthy communities of believers in strategic urban settings throughout the Mediterranean world.
And those Christian communities ultimately turned the Roman Empire on its head — just like Jesus promised they would: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
So, next Sunday in church, try to not to think so much about me and Jesus. Think about us and Jesus instead. Then perhaps the men, women and children in our world will know that we are truly His disciples.