While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
Scripture: Acts 4:32-35
The phrase “First Responders” has come to mean people who are trained and ready to deal with emergencies. They are the police, firefighters, paramedics and other people who go into a crisis situation and help others.
Last week we got a glimpse of the women who were the first to respond to the resurrection. It is clear from the gospels that no one expected it and I’m not sure how you’d train for such an event anyway.
Their first reaction was to hide; to deal with the wonder and the terror
and the sheer impossibility of it all by keeping it to themselves.
Obviously, they got over that, and went on to tell Peter and the other disciples. And if we were to look at Matthew’s gospel we would even see the great commission, where the disciples are sent beyond Galilee, beyond Jerusalem and Israel into the larger world to spread the message of Jesus.
It is very inspiring, but our lesson from Acts today gives us a picture of how things may have gone in a more practical way.
Certainly, Christianity spread from the earliest days, but it’s not like everyone started travelling. In fact, our lesson today gives us a picture of a different first response: the initial response of the Christian community to the absence of Jesus.
I would suggest that this situation is the one Jesus had trained his followers for. All the things he taught them while they travelled around together came to life when he left them to grow on their own and it took a really interesting form: a communal way of life; a sharing of all goods. That’s the first thing that the disciples did as they tried to organize themselves.
We know that some significant disciples didn’t leave Jerusalem for years to preach. The new community was led by James, the brother of Jesus and Peter was also a leading member. Paul reports going to them and arguing with both, to allow Gentiles to join the faith without conversion to Judaism first; without circumcision.
We also know that some of their plan hit problems in just a few years. A major part of early Christian teaching was the expectation that Jesus would return right away. So, when the members sold their properties and shared with all, no plans were made for long-term investments; they started living off their equity. Eventually, Paul had to take up a collection from other churches to help support the Jerusalem church which was facing financial hard times.
It really strikes me that this is the first approach to church that the first followers of Jesus chose: they became a community in a very close sense. They lived together, and shared everything: no one went hungry, no one had to live on the street, it was all about people working together, sharing together. No one had to face life alone.
If it weren’t for the expectation that the world would end right away, it was an amazing model.
Versions of this still exist. Christian Communities have been around for centuries: monks and nuns have gathered in various orders, from the familiar Augustinian and Benedictine sorts of orders to those that were set up in the Celtic lands where the monks and nuns could be married.
In most of these, members take a vow of poverty: the property they bring to the community is held by the church for all members. That’s a fairly strict way to do it, and it isn’t for everyone.
Other versions still exist around us: Mennonite communities strive for the same vision of community where people work together, share together. They have their own homes, their own families but the society defines and shapes their lives. In some cases, the community is as effective as a corporation, sharing effort and resources to buy huge areas of farmland and lots of equipment which lets them out-compete other farmers.
In the United Church we don’t think about these approaches to Christianity very often. When we do it often involves stories about people escaping from them: the kinds of stories that emphasize people rebelling against the social constraints of a rigid society, or maybe about a singing monk leaving the order and wanting a cut of the royalties of the music he helped create.
Our whole society emphasizes individualism, so that this kind of collective approach makes us uncomfortable.
As a teen in the 70s I looked at what the first Christians did and thought: “Wow, Communists!” My political understanding has become more sophisticated since then but the impact remains: these first students of Jesus banded together without reservation and committed themselves to mutual support and help, to generosity and care. They saw this as the natural fulfillment of the teachings that Jesus had shared with them in his ministry.
There’s even an early Christian writing called the Didache: “the Teachings of the 12 Apostles” that sets out a way of life for a Christian community that has set itself apart from the rest of the world to be a holy gathering and a safe haven, where people could be sheltered from the brutality of Roman life.
The lifestyle we inherited from the 20th century makes it hard for us to imagine this kind of life, this kind of commitment beyond our “nuclear family”; but can that 20th century attitude last?
I have seen increasing numbers of younger people living in intentional communities. Often there is a strong financial incentive – it’s expensive to find a place to live these days. But a lot of them are committed out of a sense of principal too: a desire to share, to look beyond a self-centred, materialistic culture, to learn about other people and find ways to appreciate them, to share skills and resources in a way that benefits everyone.
Beyond that, I am aware of the isolation that has come with COVID; the way the pandemic has exposed the challenges of insisting on each of us having our own place and trying to be completely self-sufficient, all the time.
The teachings of Jesus have always emphasized the way we connect; the way we are part of something bigger; the way we are a community.
Maybe this is a good time to re-examine our assumptions; to push past the cold war resistance to anything socialistic; to really make a commitment to each other; a determination to be a community in the face of forces that are pulling us apart.
We know that we are going to come out of this pandemic changed. Our society can’t help but be transformed by this – and here is a reminder of what the earliest Christians considered most essential to a daily expression of faith.
Those First Responders to Jesus met him, heard his teachings and tried to bring those to life when he left this world.
We can’t write them off as impractical. Their expectation of an immediate return of Jesus is a misunderstanding that we’ve learned from and the ultimate reason that their community failed: the violent destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman legions, is no reason at all to abandon their values.
So let’s consider what they can show us.
Let’s think about the practical ways we can love our neighbours as ourselves, starting now, when our neighbours are kept at a distance and continuing when we come out of this pandemic and have to figure out how to build a fresh future.