This reading is adapted from The Early Christians: In Their Own Words.
Jesus brought fresh news to the world. It is news about a totally different social order, news that heralds judgment and complete reversal for the life of the present world-age. His news concerns the reign of God, which will bring to an end the present age, the age of man. Without God our age sinks down into hollowness and coldness of heart, into stubbornness and self-delusion. In Jesus, the Father revealed his love to us, a love that wants to conquer and rule everything that once belonged to it. Jesus calls, urging a divided humankind to sit together at one table, God’s table, where there is room for all. He invites all people to a meal of fellowship and fetches his guests from the roadsides and skid rows. The future age comes as God’s banquet, God’s wedding-feast, God’s reign of unity. It is a question of God becoming Lord again over his creation, consummating the victory of his spirit of unity and love.
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus calls on God, our Father, that his primal will should alone prevail on earth, that his age of the future in which he alone rules should draw near. His being, his name, shall at last be hallowed and honored because he alone is worthy. Then God will liberate us from all the evil of the present world, from its wickedness and death, from Satan, the evil one now ruling. God grants forgiveness of sin by making manifest his power and his love. This saves and protects human beings from the hour of temptation, the hour of crisis for the whole world. This is how God conquers the earth, with the burden of its historical development and the human necessity of daily nourishment.
However, the dark powers of godlessness pervade the world as it is today so strongly that they can be conquered only in the last stronghold of the enemy’s might, in death itself. So Jesus calls people to his heroic way of an utterly ignominious death. The catastrophe of the final battle must be provoked, for Satan with all his demonic powers can be driven out in no other way. Jesus’ death on the cross is the decisive act. This death makes Jesus the sole leader on the new way that reflects the coming time of God. It makes him the sole captain in the great battle which shall consummate God’s victory.
There is a gulf between these two deadly hostile camps, between the present and the future, between the age we live in and the coming epoch. Therefore the heroism of Jesus is untimely, hostile in every way to the spirit of the age. For his way subjects every aspect of today’s life to the coming goal of the future. God’s time is in the future, yet it has been made known now. Its essence and nature and power became a person in Jesus, became history in him, clearly stated in his words and victoriously fought out in his life and deeds. In this Messiah alone God’s future is present.
The new future puts an end to all powers, legal systems, and property laws now in force. The coming kingdom reveals itself even now wherever God’s all-powerful love unites people in a life of surrendered brotherhood. Jesus proclaimed and brought nothing but God, nothing but his coming rule and order. He founded neither churches nor sects. His life belonged to greater things. Pointing toward the ultimate goal, he gave the direction. He brought us God’s compass, which determines the way by taking its bearings from the pole of the future.
Jesus called people to a practical way of loving brotherhood. This is the only way in keeping with our expectation of that which is coming. It alone leads us to others, it alone breaks down the barriers erected by the covetous will to possess, because it is determined to give itself to all. The Sermon on the Mount depicts the liberating power of God’s love wherever it rules supreme. When Jesus sent out his disciples and ambassadors, he gave them their work assignment, without which no one can live as he did:1 in word and deed we are to proclaim the imminence of the kingdom. He gives authority to overcome diseases and demonic powers. To oppose the order of the present world epoch and focus on the task at hand we must abandon all possessions and take to the road. The hallmark of his mission is readiness to become a target for people’s hatred in the fierce battle of spirits, and finally, to be killed in action. …
God’s new order can break in with all its splendor only after cataclysmic judgment. Death must come before the resurrection of the flesh. The promise of a future millennium is linked to the prophecy of judgment, which will attack the root of the prevailing order. All this springs from the original message passed on by the very first church. There is tension between future and present, God and demons; between selfish, possessive will and the loving, giving will of God; between the present order of the state, which through economic pressures assumes absolute power, and God’s coming rule of love and justice. These two antagonistic forces are sharply provoking each other. The present world-age is doomed; in fact, the promised Messiah has already overpowered its champion and leader! This is an accomplished fact. The early church handed down this suprahistorical revolution to the next generation. Jesus rose from the dead; too late did the prince of death realize his power was broken.2
From the time of the early church and the apostle Paul, the cross remains the one and only proclamation: Christians shall know only one way, that of being nailed to the cross with Christ (Gal. 6:14). Only dying his death with him leads to resurrection and to the kingdom (Gal. 5:24). No wonder that Celsus, an enemy of the church, was amazed at the centrality of the cross and the resurrection among the Christians.3 The pagan satirist Lucian was surprised that one who was hung on the cross in Palestine could have introduced this death as a new mystery: dying with him on the cross was the essence of his bequest.4 The early Christians used to stretch out their hands as a symbol of triumph, imitating the arms extended on the cross.
In their certainty of victory, Christians who were gathered for the Lord’s Supper heard the alarmed question of Satan and death, “Who is he that robs us of our power?” They answered with the exultant shout of victory, “Here is Christ, the crucified!”5 The proclamation of Christ’s death at this meal signified the giving of substance to his resurrection, the “doing” of this decisive fact by the transformation and re-formation of life, the giving of reality to that fact of facts which is his victory – born of power and giving power – consummated in suffering and dying, in his rising from death and ascent to the throne, and in his second coming. For what Christ has done he does again and again in his church. His victory is perfected. Terrified, the devil must give up his own. The dragon with seven heads is slain. The evil venom is destroyed.6
Thus the church sings the praise of him who became man, who suffered, died and rose again, and overpowered the realm of the underworld when he descended into Hades. He is “the strong,” “the mighty,” “the immortal.”7 He comes in person to his church, escorted by the hosts of his angel princes. Now the heavens are opened to the believers. They see and hear the choir of singing angels. Christ’s coming to the church in the power of the Spirit, here and now, makes his first historical coming and his second, future appearance a certainty. In trembling awe the church experiences her Lord and sovereign as a guest: “Now he has appeared among us!”8 Some see him sitting in person at the table to share their meal. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper is for them a foretaste of the future wedding feast. …
The trials of all the Greek heroes cannot match the intensity of this majestic battle between the spirits. By becoming one with the Christ triumphant, early Christian life becomes a soldier’s life, sure of victory over the greatest enemy of all time in the bitter struggle with the dark powers of this world-age. No murderous weapons, no amulets, no magic spells or rites are of use in this war. Nor will men look to water, oil, salt, incense, burning lamps, sounding brass, or even to the outward sign of the cross for that mighty victory over the demonic powers, as long as they truly believe in the name of Jesus, the power of his Spirit, his actual life in history, and his suprahistorical victory. Whenever the believers found unity in their meetings, especially when they celebrated baptism and the Lord’s Supper and “lovemeal,” the power of Christ’s presence was indisputable: sick bodies were healed, demons were driven out, sins were forgiven, life and resurrection became certainty, and people were freed from their weaknesses and turned away from their past wrongs.
- Matthew 10; Mark 6:2–11; and Luke 9:1–6.
- Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians.
- Origen, Against Celsus VI.34.
- Lucian, On the Death of Peregrinus II.
- Syriac Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Arabic Didascalia (Didascalia et Constitutiones Apostolorum, ed. F. X. Funk, Paderborn, 1905, vol. 2), chapter 39.
- Ode of Solomon 22.
- See the oriental and Abyssinian liturgies in F. E. Brightman, Liturgies Eastern and Western (pub. 1896), 218. See also the so-called “Clementine Liturgy” in Apostolic Constitutions, and the Syriac Testament of Our Lord.
- Quoted by Wetter in Brightman, 452 (the Armenian Liturgy).