Why did the early Christian movement succeed? Why has it lasted for almost 2,000 years? The most basic reason is the resurrection of Jesus. Early Christians believed that God was at work in a definitive way in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. They believed that through Jesus it had become possible to be freed from the domination of sin and death and to be freed for life in the Holy Spirit. The resurrection explains why the early church succeeded, and the success of the early church is proof of the power of Jesus’ resurrection.
How the earliest Christians came to believe in Jesus’ resurrection is sketched in John 20. The beloved disciple saw that Jesus’ tomb was empty and believed that he had been raised from the dead. Mary Magdalene heard Jesus call her by name and believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Today’s passage from the second half of John 20 features two more narratives about coming to believe in Jesus’ resurrection. The first episode takes place on Easter Sunday afternoon. When the disciples see the risen Jesus, they come to believe in his resurrection. What Jesus promised them in the farewell discourses in John 13-17—peace, joy and the Holy Spirit—they received through their encounter with the risen Lord. Having received those gifts, the disciples are sent on mission to share those gifts with others. Mission is the proper response to encountering the risen Jesus.
The second episode concerns another appearance of the risen Jesus to his disciples, this time on the Sunday after Easter. It features Thomas the doubter. Because he was absent on Easter afternoon, Thomas refused to believe that Jesus had really been raised from the dead. He came to believe only when challenged by the risen Lord to make an empirical test by touching him. Despite his initial skepticism, Thomas goes on to make the highest confession of faith in John’s Gospel. He proclaims the risen Jesus to be “my Lord and my God.” Thomas came to believe in Jesus’ resurrection when faced with physical evidence.
The Johannine account of the development of Easter faith does not stop with Thomas’s confession of the risen Jesus as “my Lord and my God.” An even higher form of Easter faith, according to the Johannine Jesus, is to believe without seeing the empty tomb or the risen Jesus. The risen Jesus declares as blessed those who have not seen and nevertheless have believed. That is what the first readers of John’s Gospel were invited to do, and that is what we today are invited to do. There is no explaining the success of early Christianity without reference to faith in Jesus’ resurrection.
Today’s reading from Acts 5 reminds us that there were other important factors in the success of early Christianity. One of the prominent themes in Acts is the parallelism between the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of the apostles. Just as the earthly Jesus brought physical and spiritual healing to people, so the apostles performed “signs and wonders” on behalf of the sick and the possessed. Moreover, the apostles continued to frequent the Jerusalem Temple (“Solomon’s portico” was part of the Temple complex) and attracted other Jews to their movement, thus reaffirming the roots of the early Christian movement within Israel. From other parts of Acts, we learn that early Christians spent much energy in interpreting the Old Testament in the light of God’s saving action in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Rather than starting a new religion, the first Christians understood themselves as experiencing the fullness of Judaism, standing in continuity with the great heroes of God’s people. Furthermore, the early Christians opened their movement to all kinds of persons, even the sick and possessed. In a society that often linked sin and suffering and regarded sick persons as under the power of evil spirits, the early church extended an open hand of care and compassion. It did so in confidence that Jesus’ death and resurrection had broken the power of the Evil One, that there was nothing to fear from contact with outcasts and that the sick and possessed were God’s children.
The Book of Revelation is the book of the risen Jesus. The vision of the risen Jesus to John on the island of Patmos sets the situation for the entire book. John is to be shown what has been, is and will be. The seven churches of western Turkey originally addressed in Revelation were persecuted, discouraged and fearful. Just as in Jesus’ resurrection God showed his power over sin and death, so on the basis of Jesus’ resurrection there was hope for them when all seemed hopeless. Those early Christians succeeded because of their faith and hope in the one who once was dead but now is “alive forever and ever.”