This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Monday, April 16, 2012

One Heart and Soul: No Private Ownership.

Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1–2:2; John 20:19-31

            One way of looking at the New Testament, and indeed the entire Bible, is as a manual for community organizing.  It is all about organizing, first the community of Israel, and then the community of the New Israel, the church.  First, it has to do with knitting together a disparate group of people – originally the band of slaves escaping from Egypt – into a coherent, integrated, interactive, functional whole.  It is about making one out of many.  It is about moving from being an ad hoc collection of individuals to being a united group.
            Jesus’ entire ministry is rescuing people from a corrupt, oppressive society, and delivering them into a new community of his followers, whose life together was characterized by love.  They were to love each other just as he loved them, which is to say, with generous, sacrificial, healing, accepting, and forgiving love.  Jesus is a healer and he gathers a healing community.  
            The diseases Jesus heals in his ministry are not accidental.  They are first of all maladies that the Old Testament predicted the Messiah would master, and secondly, they stand for wider and deeper conditions in people.  These are diseases people contract because they live in a sick society.  They are ailments rooted in depression, exclusion, powerlessness, and stress.
            When Jesus heals someone it is not like he then sends them back into the rat-race that made them sick in the first place, or at least ignored and profited from their illness.  Jesus is not patching people up so they can be thrown back into the battle, which was the perpetual frustration of the doctors on M*A*S*H.  Jesus forms small communities of disciples wherever he goes.  These communities exhibit and practice his healing values.  And it is these pre-existing communities that create the environment for the rapid spread of the good news after his resurrection.
            We get a vivid picture of the character of the kind of community that Jesus established in the early chapters of Acts.  Luke portrays the gathering in Jerusalem as demonstrating a remarkable unity.  “They were of one heart and soul.”  This oneness has a healing effect because one of the most crippling things about a crippled community is its divisions. 
            Just as a body can’t function when it is working against itself, neither can a community be healthy if its members are functioning in competition, at cross-purposes, and even conspiring against each other.  When there is mistrust and backstabbing in a group, when there are class divisions and unequal distributions of wealth and power… these things undermine a community and turn it against itself.

            We see unity celebrated in today’s Psalm, Psalm 133.  This is kind of a wishful-thinking hope expressed in the Psalter.  It looks ahead to a reunion of the northern and southern Kingdoms, Israel and Judah, a reunion which never actually happened in history.  The northern Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians and was never heard from again (unless you’re a Mormon).
            But the Psalmist is celebrating in advance a unity that is true in God’s sight, but just hasn’t been manifested in human affairs quite yet.
            In 1986 I was asked to participate in the wedding of my brother in Buffalo.  He married an Irish Catholic woman and the service would be in a Catholic church, led by a priest friend of her family.  The priest asked me to celebrate the wedding with him.  At the time I was managing a couple of bookstores in Cambridge, Mass., one of which served the local Catholic seminary.  When my manager, a seminarian, heard what I was about to do he was scandalized.  He shook his head and said, “You are witnessing to a unity that doesn’t exist.”
            I replied that I was witnessing to a unity that truly existed in Christ, but was not yet realized by our sinful institutions.  I don’t think he appreciated that I was including his church among those sinful institutions.
            But this is something to think about very seriously, especially in these days when churches are considering leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA), as is a church in my presbytery.  Our unity is in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.  When these disciples gathered in Jerusalem after Pentecost, who knows what theologies they held?  There were as yet no creeds, catechisms, doctrines, or even a New Testament.  All of the earliest disciples were Jews, like Jesus.  Luke tells us they were of one heart and soul.  But does that mean they all had the exact same opinions about everything?  I doubt it.
            Their unity was in a common trust and obedience of Jesus, whose life and teachings and healings had been vindicated by his resurrection.  And if the followed Jesus with any integrity and authenticity, they continued his ministry of radical inclusion and healing.  They certainly continued to welcome both “prostitutes” and “tax-collectors,” that is the two categories of sinners representing both the moral and social transgressors who were excluded by a collaborationist establishment that was more interested in keeping order and stability than in manifesting God’s Kingdom of peace. 
            If anyone decided this was too much, that they didn’t want to have to associate with “those people,” they left the fellowship… and were never heard from again.

            This is because the communion of those who follow Jesus realizes that we are all “those people.”  We are all in need of healing, even if we may not be literally lame, blind, deaf, a leper, or dead.  You don’t come to Jesus if you have it all together.  You only come because you realize your own brokenness.  Because your life has become unmanageable.
            When you joined the community of Jesus’ disciples, you came with your corrupt and smelly baggage and laid it at the apostles’ feet.  And if you had any, this baggage included your money.  Luke tells us that “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”
            “Everything they owned” would have included the obvious: property, assets, cash, real estate… and it also included the more figurative: addictions, diseases, memories, experiences, habits, relationships, thoughts, and emotions.  Everybody brings both.  Rich people like tax collectors brought more material resources; poor and sick people would have brought more of the kind of baggage we mean when we say people have “baggage.”
            Whatever they brought, they dumped it in the middle of the gathering.  Whatever it was, they considered it a burden, a ball-and-chain, a crippling debilitation that was killing them by its weight.  They even thought of money in this way.  As something they needed to be rid of for the sake of their own survival.  Because, then, as now, money comes mainly from some form of stealing, however rarefied, justified, complexified, and rationalized it may be.  Sin is always a burden that binds and kills a person.
            Instead of private ownership of their sins, instead of letting their sins continue to corrode their souls and poison their relationships, these early followers of Jesus were able to give them up to the whole community.  And when these are given up to a whole community, the community of followers of Jesus, who rely upon his Word and his Spirit, then these burdens start to evaporate, dissipate, dissolve, break apart, and fade away.  The power of death that had a lethal grip on people, is shattered.  People experience liberation in the acceptance and forgiveness of the gathering of disciples.
            This is what Luke identifies when he notes in the next verse that “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.”  The resurrection is not a doctrine.  It is not merely words.  It is not a fact of history we have to maintain a certain opinion about.  The resurrection is a real experience in the life of people in this community of Jesus’ disciples.  People experienced themselves brought from death and despair and illness and powerlessness, to a miraculous new life.  And this was accomplished by the power of the good news of God’s love for the world revealed in Jesus, enacted and practiced in the living community of disciples.

            The resurrection is something they know to be real because they experience it themselves.  This is what John is celebrating when he writes: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” 
            He writes about his direct experience as a disciple of the Lord, and the direct experience of the community in its life together.  They have heard, and seen, and touched the reality of Jesus’ resurrection in their own lives.  In the way they were brought from death to life.  They were brought from divisions to unity.  They were brought from poverty to abundance.  From fear to hope.  From illness to healing.  From loneliness to togetherness.  From no to yes!
            They know that Jesus is raised because they are raised.
            Then come perhaps the most economically radical handful of verses in the whole Bible.  These are the most threatening words to many in Christian history, so much so that they have been systematically and categorically ignored, except in certain specialized, monastic settings.  Luke relates: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.  They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
            They do not prattle on about who “deserves” what, or who was exercising “personal responsibility.”  They do not haughtily sniff about “job creation,” or trickling down.  They do not wring their hands about “punishing the successful” or “the politics of envy.”  No.  Those who have resources cash out, terminating their participation in, and benefit from, an economy based on inequality, greed, exploitation, and fear, the main purpose of which is to make rich people richer.
            These followers of Jesus want no part of that.  They know that that is a large part of what is killing them.  They know that inequality is part of the sickness of their society, and it is sin against God to perpetuate this injustice, let alone profit from it.

            In today’s gospel reading, Jesus himself takes it to another level.  Just in case people think that that this divestment of wealth is somehow “payment” for the healing he gives, he blesses those who exhibit trust in him before they perceive and experience any evidence of it.
            It is like the blessing of Psalm 133.  “Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when kindred live together in unity!”  And we sing that Psalm even when the kindred are not yet living together in unity!  Which, at the time the Psalmist wrote them, they weren’t.  We proclaim the resurrection even before we experience this liberation in our own lives.  We practice the principles of love and justice, before we actually hear with our ears, see with our eyes, and touch with our hands the Word of Life.
            When we come to the Lord, we have to come before we experience who he is and what he has.  We have to come on the basis of hearsay, rumor, someone else’s testimony.  And in coming to him in this way we demonstrate an initial trust that Jesus blesses. 
            Inspiring this initial trust in people is a large part of what evangelism is about.  And there is nothing that inspires that initial trust than when someone can see something good happening in someone else’s life.  The person in recovery, the person whose notoriously bad relationships have been healed, the person who has been accepted and forgiven… when people see lives turned around, that is when they start to consider trusting in this Jesus and his healing themselves.
            We are never going to convince someone about the resurrection of Jesus by setting out cogent theological, philosophical, historical, archaeological, scriptural arguments.  People become convinced because of their experience. 
            We are the evidence, we are the argument, we are the truth of the resurrection.  When people want to come to Jesus they have to come to us.  They will examine the quality of our lives and our life together.  Do these people look healed?  Do these people have joy?  Do they accept and forgive each other?  Do they love each other?  Can I trust these people with my burdens, my sins, my shame, my fear?  Can I admit to them what I can’t even admit to myself?
            Can I trust them with my gifts, my talents, my wealth, my children, my story?
            With how much power do we give our testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus?  Not just in words, but in the character and quality of our relationships?  Our practices and lifestyle?
            May we in our own life together embody the words of John:
“This is the message we have heard from [Christ] and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we… walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

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