Audio homily here:
When we read the Acts of the Apostles in the easter season, we see another form of church. The church of Paul and Barnabas is certainly different in structure from the church we know today.
There were no parishes or dioceses then. In Rome, if you asked where the Vatican was, they’d point you to a race course on a hill on the fringe of the city where the emperor had his private games. There were no monasteries or religious communities or other Christian institutions.
When Paul and Barnabas went to different places, they went to the Jewish synagogues where they spoke about Jesus as the Messiah. The reaction to their message was mixed, at best. At times they were violently rejected, but some Jews and some “God-fearing gentiles” – non-Jews who appreciated Judaism and its spirituality– accepted their message about Jesus and his promise of salvation.
The synagogue was the normal “catechumenate” where early Christian missionaries like Paul and Barnabas found converts to the faith. No synagogues, as far as we know, became Christian churches.
Where, then, did new believers go? They gathered in the houses of other believers, in “house churches”, usually bigger houses belonging to merchants. The owners and their families lived in these houses, but they also conducted their business in part of the house. Their servants and slaves would live and work there too.
In his Letter to the Romans Paul sends his greeting to Prisca and Aquila and the “church in their house.” They were husband and wife, a couple of merchants who ran a leather business in Corinth. Paul lived with them for almost two years; he worked and taught in their house. After that, he lived in their house in Ephesus and founded the church in that city. He calls them “ my co-workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life. I am grateful to them but also all the churches of the gentiles.”
In Rome there were no churches as we know them till the 4th century, but historians count 25 house churches where Christians met in the early centuries in that city.
Our church structure developed since then, we can see a development in our first reading today. Paul is appointing leaders in every church. But there’s something important this early time can teach us. At the end of his Letter to the Romans, after expounding on some of his most profound teachings, Paul remembers a number of people in Rome he wants to greet. Prisca and Aquila and all the church in their house are the first; they must have moved back to Rome. Then there are a number of other names that seem to come spontaneously to his mind. They’re the names of ordinary Christians, not just the owners of the houses where Christians meet and their families, but the servants, the slaves, the ordinary people whom Paul lived with and worked with and prayed with side by side.
Unfortunately, this section of his letter is never read in church. It should be; it breathes with affection and appreciation and love for all the people who are the body of Christ. Listen to it.
Greet Prisca and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus,
who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I am grateful but also all the churches of the Gentiles; greet also the church at their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the firstfruits in Asia for Christ.
Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you.
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners; they are prominent among the apostles and they were in Christ before me.
Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord.
Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys.
Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus.
Greet my kinsman Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus.
Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord.
Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine.
Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers who are with them.
Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the holy ones who are with them.
Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you. ( Romans 3,3-16)
Paul doesn’t want to leave anybody out. You can hear his love for them all. That’s the love Jesus had for his disciples. “Love one another, as I have loved you.” That’s the love that should be in our church, no matter what its structure is.