The call to conversion in the early Church: lessons for today

The call to conversion in the early Church: lessons for today

Rev Dr Peter Waters

The first years of the foundation and expansion of our one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church are relatively obscure. The only structured account of them is given in the Acts of the Apostles, a momentous story, recorded by the evangelist, St Luke.

For several years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, his closest followers remained in Jerusalem where they continued to live by the Law and the Temple Cult. In time, their public witness to Jesus as "the Risen Lord" and "the Christ" brought them into conflict with the priestly authorities of the Holy City. This led to the stoning of the deacon, Stephen, and the scattering of the Hellenists to Phoenicia, Cyprus and Greater Syria.

Missionary voyages

From Antioch, under the leadership of St Paul, the Gospel was brought by Christian missionaries to Asia Minor and then to Greece. By the conclusion of St Paul's missionary voyages (between c. 50-63 AD), the Gospel was flourishing already in Rome. Accordingly, when St Luke concludes his story, the Church has become a world-wide family of Jews and Gentiles, who have come to believe in Jesus and his message.

St Luke actually highlights the harmony with the other traditions of the early Church concerning the Apostolic Mission. He ascribes the world mission of the apostles to a command of the Risen Lord. It is only the Risen One who insists that his followers now go forth to the whole world.

Before this could begin, however, the disciples of Jesus were directed to wait in the Holy City for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Just as Jesus had received the Spirit of witness at the beginning of his public ministry, now the Church would need the support of the same Spirit. The dramatic manifestation at Pentecost and its immediate effect on the apostles marks for St Luke the inauguration of the Church's public proclamation of its faith.

The evangelist stresses the fact that the call to conversion was given to both Jews and Gentiles. Both groups were challenged to give up a sinful life which was displeasing to God. They were to turn now to the Lord Jesus Christ, who alone could save them.

St Luke records two major addresses, both ascribed to St Peter, with the Eleven, which are clearly organised to emphasise his theological concerns. There is the Pentecost speech (Acts 2:14-40), followed by the Temple speech (Acts 3:11-26).

Each speech follows a common literary structure:

* A proclamation of the events leading to the death and resurrection of Jesus.

* A reference to Scripture as foretelling and explaining the meaning of these events.

* A reference to Jesus' disciples as witnesses to these happenings.

* A call to repentance and conversion as a necessary response to these events.

The hearers of these important speeches are spoken of as "Men of Judaea" and "Men of Israel". They are spoken of as descendants of Abraham and recipients of the promises made to him.

Nevertheless, despite their great heritage, they are sinners. This would normally indicate that they had violated the precepts of the Mosaic Law, thus becoming the object of God's anger. However, the text does not indicate that this is the case. The Church was now the unique context in which salvation was assured; it alone possessed the Spirit and the Word of the Risen Lord. Accordingly, Israel and its institutions are presented by St Luke as the patrimony of the Church, not as a subject of controversy.

Thus in his account of the preaching of St Peter and the others the call to conversion is given to the Jews first, but not as an appeal to return to a more faithful observance of the Law. Rather, the Apostle's appeal to repentance and conversion focuses on a challenge to accept Jesus as their Messiah. He wanted to convince them of the truth expounded so frequently by St Paul that the Law could not save the true People of God.

Faith witness

We have seen how these two speeches, Pentecost and Temple, mark the inauguration of the Church's witness to its faith in Jesus as the Christ. St Luke records other such episodes as the Jews continue to be given further opportunities to hear the Word. In fact, within a short while (at least by 36 AD) this public witness begins to spread beyond Jerusalem throughout Palestine and then into the Diaspora. As the Church expanded its preaching, pagans began to hear the Word and to believe in Jesus as the Saviour.

At first, such contacts were made through the Synagogues of Hellenistic Judaism - the Diaspora. Subsequently they were made in the public buildings and halls, markets and homes in the surrounding areas. However, there was now no longer a common religious heritage derived from Judaism, nor was there a common religious vocabulary which was shared by the missionaries of the Church and the hearers of the Gospel.

A new approach to the Gentiles had to be developed, given the pluralities of their religious beliefs. Remember that Athenians looked to Athena as their god. Artemis was the deity of Ephesus. Philosophical cults such as Epicurianism and Stoicism, together with mystery (magical and astrological) cults all jostled for acceptance in the pagan world. But they had no shared vocabulary. Consequently the kerygma (preaching) had to change.

St Luke indicates that there was a remarkable re-adjustment in the then evolving approach to the Gentiles. Specifically, the earlier and frequently harsh criticism of the pagans found in St Paul (and also in contemporary Judaic writings) could no longer be used effectively with the ever-growing numbers of Gentile converts to Christianity. A new missionary tactic was called for and this is to be found illustrated in the Acts of the Apostles.

More gentle tone

Rather than the pagans' distance from God and their sinfulness before him, St Luke stresses their nearness to him and their need for repentance and conversion to Jesus. He uses a much more gentle tone so as to make the Gospel more receptive and thereby accommodate the Church to the realities of his day. This may be found in the presentation of St Paul's short speech to the Gentiles of Lystra, given during his first missionary voyage (c. 46-8 AD). Here St Paul mirrors St Peter in his missionary conduct.

There is a work performed by the apostle, the healing of a cripple, yet by a simple authoritative command. This is followed by the preaching of the Word to an amazed audience. Note that in this speech God is introduced, not in relation to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but as the Creator of all human beings. The apostle declares that God has revealed himself to all human beings as living and provident. Furthermore, he insists that this fact can be discovered by everyone.

What are they to do in response to this revelation? St Luke presents the record of St Paul as speaking of two inter-related actions. They must turn from their idolatry, turn from false worship of the false gods which this entailed. This does not mean that these rural pagans actually believed that such artefacts were divine or embodied the divine. But they did see them as representing various nature forces judged essential to their well-being. Thus they paid homage to the creature that represented these forces instead of worshipping the Creator and this, of course, was the great sin of the Gentiles. They must turn to a living God, not one made of stone or wood. This is the true God who created all things.

Elsewhere St Luke underscores the essential function of faith in God and good works in daily life. In fact, this was the core element in St John the Baptist's call to repentance, especially as it was presented in St Luke. Where does this conversion take place? As you might expect, within the heart. The choice, then, was the call to decide, followed by a call to repentance in the heart.

The structure in the missionary speeches to the Gentiles - differing from that adopted in the case of the Jews - was as follows:

* Mention is made of the personal revelation of God in cosmic and human history.

* There is a witness of poets and philosophers to this revelation.

* A call to repentance and conversion to the one true God with a contrast between the before and after.

* The motive for conversion is impending judgement by the Risen Christ.

The success of the Gentile mission and the increasing number of convert pagans in the community eventually brought the issue of the Mosaic Law to a head. Were such neophytes to be circumcised and required to live by the ordinances of the Torah?

It was at the Council of Jerusalem that this problem was subject to sharp debate. The final resolution saw the leaders of the Church acknowledge its fundamentally Christ- ological character. The Church formally saw itself as the messianic community centred on the faith worship of a person, Jesus the Christ. It solemnly declared that salvation was a gift of God's grace to both Jew and Gentile through Jesus Christ and faith in his name.

After this, there was a rapid expansion of the organised missionary activity of the Church (c. 50 AD). St Luke describes this outward thrust by following the adventures of St Paul during his second and third missionary voyages out of Antioch (c. 50-58 AD).

One true God

It is at Athens that the greatest of St Paul's missionary speeches is situated. This is his address to the Areopagus. Speaking now to a much more sophisticated audience, he develops the theme of their misguided religious zeal and their misguided polytheistic religious observances. However, he assures them that their worship of an unknown god can easily lead them to the worship of the one true God. Indeed, this God is the creator of all things and the master of human history. He has long been the object of their unwitting search as the one that gives life to all living things.

The Call to Conversion has profound implications for the contemporary missionary project of the Church, for ecumenism and for dialogue with non-Christians.

In this regard, I would briefly refer to a booklet by my friend, Philip Trower, an eminent English author-historian. His Background to Ecumenism clearly and succinctly draws attention to a shift in the understanding and use of the term dialogue, thereby creating a distorted theology of mission and an abandonment of that responsibility entrusted initially to the apostles as has been carefully demonstrated.


Influenced by the existentialism of Martin Buber, dialogue is not now primarily undertaken to promote agreement about truth, but to promote mutual respect among individuals and an attendant satisfaction in fellow-feeling. The latter concept of dialogue has had widespread and devastating influence in recent times on attitudes to conversion and mission.

Here in the inter-religious field we see ecumenism being used for yet another purpose; to promote world civilisation through social harmony. No one will doubt this is a good end in itself. But it is not the same as preaching the Gospel to all nations, and the methods used look strikingly like a betrayal of the Gospel.

The teaching of the Second Vatican Council (Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity, p. 818, Flannery) echoes the call to conversion in the early Church in these words: "The mission of the Church is carried out by means of that activity through which, in obedience to Christ's command and moved by the grace and love of the Holy Spirit, the Church makes itself fully present to all men and peoples in order to lead them to the faith, freedom and peace of Christ by the example of its life and teaching, by the sacraments and other means of grace. Its aim is to open up for all men a free and sure path to full participation in the mystery of Christ."

It impels each one of us to persevere in carrying out the Saviour's command: "Go out to all the world, preach the Gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptised will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned."

This is the edited text of Fr Peter Waters' lecture given at the Caroline Chisholm Library, Melbourne, earlier this year. The detailed footnotes provided with the original have had to be omitted because of space constraints.

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