No one person or group could have made the first church. No heights of oratory, no flaming enthusiasm, could have awakened for Christ the thousands who were moved at the time, or produced the united life of the early church. The Spirit did not, as you might think, descend upon the speakers in such a way that they preached a sermon or gave a speech to an unenlightened crowd. Instead, fiery tongues of the Spirit ate their way into the hearts of the hearers and inflamed the crowd in one common experience of the same Spirit and the same Christ.
The deepest mystery of the early church lies in the very presence of the risen Christ himself, who makes his dwelling in each person’s heart and reveals the power of his presence in the midst of his church. The open tomb proves that God rules because at the first Pentecost, from the one who had died and risen again, the life of the Spirit broke in as the coming of the kingdom. The crucified one had risen – that was the proclamation at Pentecost. God had wakened him from the dead and made him the Messiah and king of the coming kingdom. It was in the strength of this proclamation that the early church immersed itself.
When the murderers of Jesus stood before the Spirit of the living Christ they were confronted with absolute truthfulness. Their first response surged from deep within their hearts: “What shall we do?” As a result, there came about a complete transformation of people’s inner being, a reshaping of their lives, which was the very change of heart and conduct that John the Baptist had proclaimed. He had seen it as the first requirement for the great revolution to come, the turning upside down of everything. Personal rebirth could not be separated from this total transformation in Christ.
For this reason, what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount was actually fulfilled in the early church, as were indeed all his words. Fellowship in his Word meant life-creating and life-shaping power. It meant the fellowship of being truly bound together in prayer and in the breaking of bread, of becoming a genuine community, embracing the whole of life. Christ came to gather his people, and thus when the Spirit descended, “All who had come to this faith remained together and had everything in common, and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44–45). After this common experience of the Spirit, which surged up from within, there could be no question of any rules and regulations; the simple truth was that the early church was one heart and one soul.
What did the first believers experience? They experienced the kingdom of God – the revolution of all things and the revaluation of all values. They experienced the complete changing of all conditions and all possibilities, the switching of all relationships in business, state, society, and everywhere. A completely different scale of values took effect, quite different from all other values that had existed so far. God became the highest value; he reigned and revealed himself. Christ replaced the other sovereignties; he swept away the power of lying, of impurity, and of murder, and instead of them the peace of God took hold. This was the expectation and experience of the original church community.
In Jesus’ resurrected presence, the invisible kingdom of God has become visible reality. The word has taken shape, love has become real. Jesus showed what love meant. His word and life proved that love knows no bounds. Love halts at no barrier. It can never be silenced, no matter what circumstances make it seem impossible to practice it. Nothing is impossible for the faith that springs from the fire of love. For this reason, the call of Jesus does not stop at property.
When the Spirit was given by the risen one, he overturned everything and set it on fire. Then the disciples were able to become a life-sharing community, and only then did their love overflow. They were all on fire with the same burning love, which drew them irresistibly and for always together. Love had become in them a “holy must.” Just as Jesus had always wanted to gather his nearest friends and pupils, whom we call disciples, so the Spirit drew the early Christians radically to one another. Together they felt compelled to live the life of Jesus, and together, in complete community, they experienced the powers of the future.
Only in this way could isolation and its ice-cold existence be overcome. Communal life with its white-hot love began. In its heat, property was melted away to the very foundations. The icy substructures of age-old glaciers melt before God’s sun. All ownership feeds on stifling self-interest. When deadly selfishness is killed by love, and only then, ownership and all that separates comes to an end. This is how it was in the early church. This is how it still can be: Under the influence of the Spirit, community is born, where people do not think in terms of “mine” and “thine.”
This kind of love overlooks no need or suffering. In such a life-sharing community no one suffers a lack of clothing, food, or any other necessity of life. Those who want to keep goods and valuables for themselves in spite of the need around them must do violence to their own hearts. God’s heart is never limited in its sphere of action. Those who held their goods in common at Jerusalem thus gave generous hospitality to thousands of pilgrims. Through the outpouring of the Spirit, they were able to care wisely for many, for very many, with the slenderest means.
The Pentecostal spring of the first Christian church contrasts sharply with the icy rigidity of our Christianity today. Everyone senses that at that time a fresher wind blew and purer water flowed, a stronger power and a more fiery warmth ruled than today among those of us who call ourselves Christians. We all know that in spite of the different churches, the community life of faith and love represented by the early church is almost completely absent today.
What has Christianity in general lost? What was the all-important event that took place in Jerusalem? The word of Jesus, and even more, his life and deeds from the manger to the cross, were really alive and present in that first circle of the Christ-movement. This community of faith and community of life in the first love was marked by the risen Christ – the Christ who had said, “I am with you always” (Matt. 28:20). Everything depends on seeing the mystery of the risen Christ as unconditional love. There is only one thing that knows no conditions: that is love. There is only one absolute: that is God’s rulership. There is only one direct way: that is the experience of God’s love in Jesus Christ. In Christ, his love is put into practice.
Compiled from Inner Land: A Guide into the Heart of the Gospel, 5 vols. (Walden, NY: Plough, 2019–2021) and other sources.
Article edited for length and clarity.