You know this story. I sat with a colleague for awhile. I stopped at a church to pray, though the pastor had to intervene and let me in, as the secretary had locked all the doors in fear. It was several hours later by the time I came down off of the Queensboro Bridge.There were F-16s in the air above us, a burnt electric smell in the air. There were men with those little grocery carts every apartment dweller in the city must have. They were Pakistani small business owners, and they were giving away the bottled water from their bodegas. Little did they know that they would soon be the targets of hate crimes by some of the very people they were assisting, as would Sikhs, a completely unrelated religious minority.
But mostly, the country came together. Like Pearl Harbor, the tragedy of 9/11 produced, for a period of a year or so, a truly United States. Then, as often happens, we lost our better selves, fell subject to bickering, division, selfishness. By the time we invaded Iraq based on fake news and trumped up claims of weapons of mass destruction, the country was as divided as ever. The ripples of discontent were even felt here in this congregation. It was not so different after the Second World War, if we are honest with ourselves, for soon after Johnny came marching home, American turned on American, neighbor on neighbor, McCarthyism and the Black Lists, the hounds unleashed in Selma.
It is our way, animal and yet more than animal, snarling tribal beasts and God-touched and God-called, all at the same time. When there is something huge, some crisis or disaster, we rise up out of the swamp of self and work together for the common good. Then, as soon as the crisis has passed, we turn on one another once again, marking our turf. Some claim to be defenders of an idealized past, never willing to admit that the past wasn’t so ideal for everyone. And there are always victims.
This time of year, between Easter and Pentecost, is a little quirky when it comes to the lectionary, the schedule of readings used in most churches. Today’s story from the Acts of the Apostles comes immediately after the story of Pentecost in the text, but we aren’t at Pentecost on the calendar yet, the fiftieth day, so we might forget the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of community, something critical in the narrative arc of Luke and Acts, for this is a reading about community, and the Spirit carries the church forward after the ascension.
The followers of Jesus that remain in Jerusalem should be grieving and confused, yet they gather each day on Solomon’s Porch, one portion of the Second Temple complex, in full view of the very people that demanded the execution of their rabbi. They have new leaders, Peter, of course, and James, the brother of Jesus, who isn’t even part of the movement in the gospels but would become the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and neither Peter nor James has the charisma or trust of Jesus.
We know that the followers don’t all agree on what Jesus meant, that Thomas and Mary Magdalene would have a whole different understanding of how Jesus saves, and Paul, who would transform the movement entirely, isn’t yet on the scene. The differing accounts, differing theologies, aren’t a late development, as you might suspect, for scholars are clear that the Jesus movement contained competing understandings from the very beginning. And yet, somehow, they kept it together.
In other parts of the Acts of the Apostles, we will see disputes, breaks within the movement, so you might ask yourself if this is like one of those Disney commercials, where children are never tired, parents are never cranky, and no one ever stands in line for a ride. But, and this is pretty big, this little movement spread from the areas immediately around the Sea of Galilee and Jerusalem to include the whole world. They must have been doing something right.
How did they build a sustainable community? There were other claimants to the title of Messiah, yet this one community would last, would change lives, would make room for those with power and those at the margins. Remarkable really. How might we build a sustainable community in an age when we have all the cultural power and privilege?
Submission is a problematic word in western culture, specifically because it has been used to justify the countless ways one gender oppresses the other, but submission is the correct word for the believer’s relationship with the divine. To be part of something larger than the self is to freely surrender something of the self, the exact opposite of consumer culture. The only time we celebrate submission in our culture is when we feed our young into the grinding teeth of war. But our work as Christians, our work when we say we belong to Jesus, when we choose, freely, to enter into covenant, is to become, to some extent, un-individuated, less me, more us. And that is huge and hard.
Though the passage is short, there are several discernible traits in this early church. The first is that it is God-centered and praise-oriented.
And before you say “duh,” I’d like to suggest that all too often churches across the theological spectrum fail to be both of these things. Modern idolatry isn’t restricted to professional sports. We’ve lost some linguistic clarity as social structures have changed, have forgotten that “the Lord” is not God’s name. It is a statement of sovereignty. The Lord is not a catch-all for ultimate concern. It is an acknowledgement that your life is not your own. The Lord is who you serve. Who do you serve?
In the worst form, church idolatry attaches to a powerful personality, a charismatic preacher, to a nation or ethnicity or a political party. How easily we swap our God for power and security, the deadly sin of the German church eighty years ago, the deadly sin of American evangelicals today. An even more insidious form of this idolatry occurs when a church starts to worship itself, becomes obsessed with the glories of the past, as if the God who makes all things new, the serendipitous creativity of the Holy Spirit, has left the building, which seems frequently to be the case.
Even those churches that have kept God at the center of their life together often forget to praise God for blessings. The psalmist may cry out for justice, beg for divine intervention, but you will find praise in there too. Even the 22nd psalm, invoked by Jesus on the cross, “My Lord! My Lord! Why have you forsaken me?,” turns a corner, ends in praise. There is a time and place for petition, for anger, for justice-making, but if there is no praise, no joy, no love, then all else is in vain. The grim and angry Left is no better than the grim and angry Right.
It is worth noting that Jesus’ usual response to the rage that is directed at him is quiet, patience, scripture. If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal. Drawing in the dust… Let he who is without sin…
If God is at the center of our life together, then we’ll talk a whole lot less about what we want and what we’ve always done, will here the words “I don’t like” a lot less frequently, for the questions we will ask again and again are “What do we believe God is calling us to do and to be in this time and place? Where is the Spirit leading us? How can we walk together in love and in joy?”
Not only does the selflessness of a God-centered and God-owned community go against everything we are taught in our culture, everything we see modeled in the polis, but we humans are predisposed to misery, to complaint. Scientists tell us that there are physiological and psychological reasons for this. We remember slights and bad experiences with more detail than we do complements and the good. If negative is the default, then a community must work at the positive, must make it a discipline, must lift up, name and celebrate. Clearly being God-centered and praise-oriented worked for the early Christians, a minority sect that had lost its leader, lived in a poor region under a military occupation of oppressed and overtaxed people where Jew turned upon Jew. They had every reason to be glum, yet their joy attracted newcomers to their church.
Do we focus enough on joyful things?
While our culture tells us to obsess over money and possessions, our most finite resource is time. This early Christian community took time to be together. We don’t know much about the lives of those in this first church, though we can make some educated guesses. The Jesus movement included those at the margins and some that were at least comfortable. Paul would make a big deal about folks having jobs, and we know the movement attracted slaves. Yet they found time, sacrificed and invested time. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity.
The entirety of our faith is based on the idea that the mysterious divine we name as God wishes to be in relationship with fickle and finite humans, that mystery took on flesh in the form of Jesus, subjecting itself to the joy and pain we all experience. They, in turn, invested their time in one another just as God had invested in humankind, for they had seen life and wholeness spring up out of what seemed broken and dead. The crisis has passed, the Lord is risen indeed, and they had a job to do, to make disciples of all nations by sharing the good news that God loves and love wins.
My ties to First Cambridge, the faith community that would eventually ordain me, were forged at a dinner table. The early Christians broke bread together. They knew nothing of this ritual we will begin in a few moments. Their spirits and their bodies were nurtured at the same time, for the meal was the meal. When these early Christians faced trials, the crucible of persecution that starts here in Acts with the mob murdering Stephen, they stand on a foundation of countless meals together. Relationship.
Church is not agendas and meetings and checklists. Church doesn’t always happen in this beautiful room. Church is sometimes, God help us, potlucks, lunch together at Marlintini’s. The transformation in the last church I served started when leaders started gathering to discern God’s will for the church in homes, with food and, dare I say it, wine, when the congregation started breaking bread together every second Sunday with an after-church lunch, Covenant requires an investment of time, because covenant is relationship. Look around. Pick someone you don’t know well. Invite them to lunch or dinner. Break bread with them. Get to know them.
The next thing is the one that makes folks uncomfortable with this passage, this commie pinko passage that most preachers choose to avoid, for it tells us that they were communitarians, which might as well be communist if you belong to the cult of Ayn Rand. While Western Enlightenment thinking is atomistic and Cartesian, worshipping the individual as if we had each sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus like latter day Athenas, communitarians understand the human as formed in the context of relationship with other humans and best in the context of relationship. A pastor colleague posted on Facebook yesterday that pooling risk was not socialism. I responded that pooling risks is called civilization. It is the foundation of the social contract.
Some theorists suggest that while we are more connected than ever, we are more alone than ever, and it is the loss of community that has lead to rage. While progressive Christians might rightfully take issue with the selective literalism of our sisters and brothers, and some of these television preachers are way down the rabbit hole, it is worth noting what statistics tell us, that those driving the current wave of political rage, the angry mobs assaulting protesters and reporters, do not attend church regularly, are not part of any structured community. It is easy to throw your fellow human under the bus when you have no relationship, much harder when it is someone you know.
And here are these wackos, selling pieces of property and other possessions and distributing the proceeds to everyone who needs them. Here are these wackos being sacrificial, for scripture tells us that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also, which is as true today as it was then. This isn’t a commune and they aren’t kibbutzniks, for it says they ate together in their homes, and we know that some of the leaders and benefactors of the early church were wealthy women. But they are sacrificial, like the widow and her mite. They are all in for love.
You shall know them by their fruits. God performed many wonders and signs through them. That’s what the book says. Maybe the greatest wonder is that they survived as a community. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. Everyone, not just those that were like them. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.
God-centered, praise-oriented, deeply relational, sacrificial. And growing.
They did the hard work and were able to withstand the worst when the trials came. They withstood the worst, told the story of a humble rabbi and God’s love, kept the flame of love alive. Praise be to God.