St. Paul’s/St. Stephen’s – Easter 4 – 4/30/2023
Some years ago, I preached on this text from Acts. After service, at the coffee hour, one of the parishioners, a very active church person came over to me and said, I’m really disturbed by that lesson from Acts that you read. That’s sounds like communism. I don’t believe in communism. I can’t believe there’s communism in the Bible. Is that one of those new translations or something?
As I think back on the encounter by the coffee pot, I’m not sure whether that story is about basic biblical illiteracy, or about America’s intense distrust of communism, or about America’s equally intense idealization of individualism. I suspect it’s about a little bit of all three.
We in America have, over the years, become more and more individualistic, and concerned mainly with ourselves, while at the same time being less and less concerned about others and the general public welfare. A pastor friend of mine was flying in a little commuter plane from South Bend to Chicago. During the safety instructions, after the part about helping get people off the plane, the man next to him in the exit row leaned over and said, I don’t know about you, but if anything happens, I’m out of here. To hell with everybody else. A few years ago a Texas state school book commission was reviewing a social studies text that said, A good candidate for public office ‘takes responsibility for the common good. A member of the commission fought to get rid of that textbook, saying, That ‘common good’ idea just leads to Communism. We need to let the individual be free.
Now, we should not be surprised that such thinking bleeds over into the realm of church, religion, spirituality. It seems to me that many people who say that they are spiritual but not religious, or I like Jesus but not the church, are exhibiting a serious degree of this intense individualism. To be Christian entails being in and of the church, whether we like it or not. What good is it to commit yourself to high-minded goals like the love of all humanity if you can’t be bothered to do the hard work of struggling to get along with the ordinary, ornery, sinful human beings who share the pew with you on Sundays? That’s like saying I believe in the sanctity of marriage but I can’t be bothered with the hard work and compromise and emotional turmoil of being in relationship with an actual human being.
It is the very nature of Christianity that it is a communal experience and knows nothing of individual spirituality or salvation. This is shown to us by the language of the texts we examine in various ways today. First in Acts 2:42-47 – Notice the use of words like they, their, all, and everyone. Four theys, three theirs, four alls, one themselves, and one everyone. And there’s you in our text from 1 Peter. It’s important to know about the plural you.
English has no proper plural you and until elementary school teachers talk us out of it we all try to invent one: Y’all, youse guys, you’ns, etc.. The yous in this text are plural. In a Southern translation, 1 Peter 2: 21 comes out like this: For to this y’all have been called, because Christ suffered for y’all, leaving y’all an example, so that y’all should follow in his steps.
Acts 2:42 is often called the marks of the early church. Notice that all the things that mark Christians are communal, things we do together: devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and prayers. Too often we have focused on the individual’s spiritual growth, saying things like – I didn’t get anything out of it, and I had to change churches, I just wasn’t being fed, without realizing that being a Christian is something we do together or not at all. Think about what is the most revolutionary word in the Lord’s Prayer. It’s the very first word…OUR. United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon, in his book on the Lord’s Prayer notes: In this prayer we are taught to pray, not as individuals, but as the church. The “our” reminds us that we cannot pray without friends. The habits that the prayer forms can be acquired only through friendship with others that makes possible our friendship with God.
The fact that this model prayer is about life and love in community is further revealed to us by the fact that it calls upon us to do something that can only be done in community, to forgive and be forgiven – forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. GK Chesterton said, In one place Jesus tells us to love our enemies; in another place he admonishes us to love our neighbors; this is because, generally speaking, they are the same people.
In one of his classic essays, C.S. Lewis observed that he didn’t much like going to church. In particular he didn’t like hymns, and most of his fellow church members were not people with whom he would have naturally been friends. But being in church with them, and praying with and for them, made him love them even if he did not naturally like them. Receiving care from them when he was in trouble, and learning to care about their troubles that were very different from his, led him to a deeper understanding of who he was and how much Christ loved all of us. Ultimately, the church is a school for the soul, a laboratory where we learn to practice the virtues that the Gospel calls us to.
The word translated fellowship in our text is KOINONIA in the Greek, which can also be translated community or communion.. What the newly baptized believers in Acts devoted themselves to was neither a fellowship of like-minded people who share a keen interest in a similar sort of spirituality, nor a social, economic, and political system called communism. Their devotion was to a new community called together by the Holy Spirit, and held together by the love they shared as the body of Christ in the world.
For almost 15 years now, a group of Christians have gathered on Sunday mornings at Friendship Park, a plaza along the U.S-Mexico border wall, in San Diego to share worship and Communion. I read about the gatherings in an article by Amy Frykholm, who visited the community. (“Worship Through A Wall.”) Apparently, this border church has survived every obstacle the U.S Border Patrol and shifting United States/Mexico relations have thrown at it.
If, for example, the border patrol won’t allow the two sides to stand close enough to hear each other’s words, they’ll stand fifty feet apart, and conduct worship over cell phones. If the participants are forbidden to pass food and drink through the fence, they’ll practice sacramental solidarity, and serve parallel Eucharists on each side of the border. Some years ago, when the chain-link border fence gave way to a steel barrier, worshipers continued to pass the peace across the border — pinky to pinky through tiny holes in the wall.
For me, a particular revelation of Jesus happened when I thought about the metaphors in this Gospel passage alongside Frykholm’s article about the tenacious little border church between the United States and Mexico. Suddenly, as I imagined eager, loving hands reaching through small gaps in a cold, steel barrier, as I pictured the insistent sharing of song, prayer, bread, and wine across a bleak, intractable border, the resonance of Jesus’s metaphor hit me full force. “I am the gate. Not, I am the wall, the barrier, the enclosure, the dividing line. Not, I am that which separates, isolates, segregates, and incarcerates. I am the gate. The door. The opening. The passageway. The place where freedom begins.
At the end of her article, Amy Frykholm quotes John Fanestil, one of the founding pastors of the church in Friendship Park. Fanestil says he shows up each Sunday to demonstrate the true nature of the border. Where others see a place of crime, fear, death, and hopelessness, Fanestil insists that those who gather for worship and Communion each week see a place of encounter, exchange, friendship, and fellowship. In other words, they make it their practice to see Jesus. Jesus, the gate. Unlocked. Wide open. Inviting. Free. May we have eyes to see him, too.
LET US PRAY:
you have not only called us to follow you
but also placed us in the fellowship of your followers, the body of believers, otherwise known as the church.
We give thanks that you did not leave us to our own devices
when it comes to our attempts faithfully to follow you.
You gave us friends who encourage us, teach us, guide us,
and console us, friends otherwise known as the church.
We confess that sometimes the greatest challenge that we face i
s following you along with other frail, flawed human beings like us,
people who can sometimes be difficult to get along with and work with, otherwise known as the church.
In the power of your Holy Spirit, work among us,
we pray and give us that unity of heart and mind,
that joy of holding all things in common,
that encouragement to be more faithful in the way we live
and how we spend our money and how we care for each other,
otherwise known as church.