You will have to forgive me because what I am about to tell you, I learned this many years ago while I attended college. Therefore, I can’t give you a reference. I do know that I heard this in a New Testament class.
There is a professor who has so completely studied Rome in the first and second centuries, that he knows each section of the city, who lived in them and on what street. His insights has helped to illuminate some of the references to the early Christian communities that existed in ancient Rome. His knowledge of Latin and Greek is profound. He even knows what names were given to the various levels of society and what names were not allowed to slaves or the lowly and poor. These insights help us to understand who Paul is greeting in Romans 16.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul says, “Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartily in the Lord, with the Church that is in their house.” Let’s see what the professor’s insights can tell us about these two and their house church. Priscilla was from a rich family on the posh side of town. Their estate was by the river and the family was prominent. Apparently, she had created a bit of a scandal because she married a slave. How do we know? Well, Aquila was a slave name. Excavations of the family estate revealed some interesting things about their “house church.” On the grounds of the estate, they recovered the bones of slaves, the bones of merchants, the bones of professionals, the military, and even the bones of the elite and senators. Those from the lower classes lived in the house church. After breakfast and morning prayers or liturgy, they would go to work, or to beg, and then would return for the evening meal and prayers. When they died, they were buried on the grounds, with no consideration for their station in society.
There were other house churches in Rome and each faced its own kind of difficulties. For example, there was a group of men called “the brothers”, who lived in a very bad part of town. It was so bad that even the Roman soldiers hated going in to it. The people were packed into high rises, three stories tall. On each floor, the rooms were separated by cheap cloth curtains. It was a veritable fire trap and there was no sanitation. You can imagine how difficult it was to live there. Yet, despite this sad situation, the brothers lived there and witnessed to their faith and love. Thinking on the situations that these Christians faced, you can understand St. Paul’s words to Christians: “Watch, stand fast in the Faith, be brave, and be strong. Let all that you do be done with love.” He was speaking not only to individuals but to the communities of which they were a part.
What can we learn from this?
It seems to me that in our present religious culture, community is a secondary concern (or maybe even farther down the list.) Many go to Church and attend every Sunday, but they avoid or even oppose activities and programs that are designed to build community. You hardly ever see them a trapeza, or bible study, or fun evenings. Certainly, caring for my own salvation is my highest priority, but the first century Christians knew that if they were to be successful in life, in faith, and in witness, they needed the protection of the Christian community.
To be a community means to share a life together. I realize that this goes against the Daniel Boone/Davy Crockett fantasy of self-sufficiency, but this is part of the problem. The idea of sharing a life with someone else outside of our immediate family seems anathema to us. Now, we do not have to recreate the house church of Aquila and Priscilla, nor do we have to live in the poor side of town in humble dwellings, but our need for community is just as profound.
The Church that formed after Pentecost (Acts 2) shows us what is needed. They were committed to the teachings of Apostles (Bible Study), in the fellowship in the “breaking of bread” (Communion), they had all things in common (a shared life) they went daily to the Temple (regular attendance), they went from house to house and ate with gladness and simplicity of heart (a shared life), praising God (Worship). We know from other sources that the Christians did acts of charity for the poor of Jerusalem. The result was that they found favor with the people, and the “the Lord added to the Church daily those who were being saved. Later, community would help them face persecution. When they found themselves in poverty, the larger Christian community would extend help to them, and St. Paul would collect funds for them.
I would contend that if we don’t strive to realize each part of this, then our experience of community is skewed and our experience can be deadly. Again, it does not mean that we have to recreate the exact way in which the early Church lived their life in the Spirit. Sadly, I have known many who began with love and faith and zeal, but were later shipwrecked in part because the full experience of community was absent (some even called it abuse.) Large or small, the size of the Church and the membership did not matter.
So, talk with your brothers and sisters and include your priest. Talk about community and how we can growth together in faith, hope, and love. Invite others, even if they seem prone to be absent, to enter into the conversation. Someday (and now it seems more likely than ever before), the world will again wield the axe of bitter persecution. When that happens, we will need, our children will need, and our grandchildren will need the community of the Holy Spirit if they hope to survive.
If you think that a greater sense of community is too hard to attain, then let me leave you again with St. Paul’s admonition: “Watch, stand fast in the Faith, be brave, and be strong. Let all that you do be done with love.” To this I will also add his words: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”