If the bishops at Vatican III are moved to designate an official church insect, I trust it will be the lowly, despised cockroach. For all its bad qualities, the cockroach has one unique characteristic with which Christian can identify: its ability to constantly adapt and evolve. Entomologists tell us that the ancestors of our modern roaches were thriving on earth long before dinosaurs appeared. And whatever calamity forced dinosaurs into extinction, didn’t seem to dent these perky little bugs’ ability to increase and multiply. They simply adapted to the environmental changes.
The first century Christians did lots of adapting. If they had refused to change or evolve, Christianity today would be just a Wikipedia historical oddity.
One of the two issues which forced Jesus’ followers to change revolved around his delayed Parousia. The Lord’s earliest disciples expected him to return quickly and establish a new world in their midst. We have many examples of this early belief in our earliest Christians writings: Paul’s letters.
This conviction can also be found in the apocalyptic book of Revelation. Notice how often it surfaces in today’s passage. “Behold, I am coming soon! ... The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ Let the heavens say, ‘Come!’ . . . Yes, I am coming soon. Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”
Yet, as the years go by, some of the faithful begin to doubt Jesus will return in their lifetime. Luke, writing around the mid-80s seems to be the first Christian author to presume he and all in his community will die natural deaths before Jesus returns in his Parousia. Scholars believe one of the Lucan passages in which the evangelist conveys this new theology is in our first reading.
Stephen is not only the first Christian martyr; he’s the first Christian to die in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. We know from the earliest Christian writing we possess - Paul’s I Thessalonians - that Jesus’ original followers believed Christians unfortunate enough to die before Jesus” return would have to patiently wait in their graves for his Parousia. But here, almost 35 years after I Thessalonians, Luke has Stephen, near the moment of death, “filled with the Holy Spirit, look up intently to heaven and see the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”
Then, immediately before he dies, “he cries out in a loud voice, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” What earlier Christian authors thought would happen only when the risen Jesus returned in glory, Luke is convinced will take place when each follower of Jesus dies. At that moment he or she will experience their “personal Parousia.” There’s no longer a waiting period between death and glory. Both happen simultaneously. (This evolution in belief would later lead to the development of the particular/general judgment theology which we learned in our grade school religion classes.)
Writing 10 years after Luke, John takes one more theological step forward. He’s a proponent of “realized eschatology.” He believes that much of what we expect to take place at the end of the world, or at our death, is already happening right here and now. Notice how John’s Jesus states, “I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me. . . .“ Oneness with God is already here. We don’t have to wait until we die to experience it.
The evolutionary stance of the earliest Christians is amazing. Yet it’s easy to understand. The new life they experience by being joined to the risen Jesus forced them to grow. As the presence of today’s cockroaches remind us, the only way to stay alive is to constantly change and evolve.