We are in the book of Acts in our Sunday sermon series at Oceanside Christian Fellowship, and I was recently assigned Acts 21:1-16. What seemed at first to be a rather dry travelogue turned out (as usual!) to be a rich portion of God’s word.
Among the unique aspects of early Christianity, when compared to other religious options in the ancient world, are the relationships the early Christians shared across geographical boundaries. The church was a family—not only locally but also from town to town.
We see this in living color on Paul’s return voyage from his third journey. Paul and a rag-tag group of buddies (Paul, Luke, and the seven guys listed in Acts 20:4) show up at Tyre, Ptolemais, Caesarea Maritima, and Jersualem, where (in each case) they immediately find lodging with fellow-Christians who are apparently relative strangers. Some comments are in order about the hospitality of the Christians in Tyre and Caesarea, in particular.
Imagine the scenario at Tyre (Acts 21:3-6). Nine guys appear on your doorstep after a week of sleeping on the deck of a Roman merchant ship. You think nothing about welcoming them into your home (for a whole week!) even though you have no significant relational history with any of them.
Now check out what happens at Caesarea (verses 8-14). Put yourself in Philip’s place. You are a father with four unmarried virgin daughters (verse 9). Nine guys who have been traveling together now for a couple weeks show up at your front door, expecting you to give them a place to stay. Yeah, right. They’re gonna stay in my house with my unmarried daughters? I don’t think so. “There’s a Best Western just down the street, boys. Come back by tomorrow morning and I’ll make you breakfast.” Instead, Philip invites them right in, where they stay “for many days” (verse 10).
Perhaps you are tempted to dismiss these profound expressions of early Christian social solidarity, by saying, “That was then. This is now. We live in a different world and cannot expect the church-as-a-family to function in a trans-local way like it did in antiquity.”
Well, I happen to think we can. Check out these excerpts from a note I received from a Talbot student a couple years ago, after she had read When the Church Was a Family:
I belong to a small Anabaptist denomination that really lives the "strong group" family culture in church, not only within a congregation, but nationally and internationally. When I was 16, I took a trip with my school to Germany, and for one day left my school group and was picked up by a family I had never met, stayed a day and a night with them, and attended church with them, simply on a recommendation from someone in the States who gave their names as a contact for the church in that area that is part of our denomination. We immediately trusted each other simply because we were "extended family."
Did you get that? A teenager traveling clear across the globe leaves her school group to stay with a family of total strangers. And it gets even better:
When I moved half-way across the country for my first job, I simply called the local elder where I was moving, and he and his family offered me a place to stay and help in finding an apartment, tips about the community, and free dinner nearly once a week for years. My coworkers simply marveled that a "complete stranger" would take me in and provide in this manner--I never had to use the corporate-sponsored "relocation services" to get connected in the community.
What a remarkable story! And what a wonderful testimony this young woman and her host family were to her co-workers on that new job!
The church is a family—even from town to town.