A COMMUNITY FORMED BY MERCY

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.                        

-Acts 2:44-45

(Preached on Sunday, May 7, 2017)

The picture Luke paints of life in the early community of the followers of Jesus is at once familiar and strange.  Study, prayer, worship, communion, and potlucks – click on any church website or pick up their church newsletter and you’ll see reports of all these practices.  The obvious outlier is the sentence contained in verses 44-45: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

These two verses seem to electrify readers – some find the practice inspiring; others see it as utopian foolishness.  Even Bible scholars and theologians do not agree about this passage from Acts and whether its description of the early Christian community is idealized or not.  Many insist it wouldn’t work, probably didn’t happen, can’t work, and even if it did happen, it was temporary and is not meant as a model for today.  Yet, … in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke twice mentions this particular strategy.

No one knows how long the early Christians were able to carry out this model or how universal the practice was.  Even Luke shares stories that hint that this practice had problems.  There were Ananias and Sapphira, the couple who wanted to appear to do the right thing, who sold a piece of land but when they brought the proceeds to the apostles they held back a portion for themselves, while claiming to be offering the entire profit to the community.  There is the story of the conflict that arose between the Greek-speaking widows and the Hebrew-speaking widows over being treated fairly and equitably at the dining table.  And the apostle Paul chastises the Corinthian community for the way the rich did not share what they brought to the communion meal with their poor brothers and sisters, but kept their lavish spreads for themselves.  Finally, Paul also speaks to several of the Greek Christian communities about a special offering he is gathering for the Jerusalem community who had fallen on hard times and was facing famine conditions.

Even so, Luke is clearly holding up the early life of the followers of Jesus as a golden age.  The Roman Empire was far more stratified with regards to income and class than our own era.  Everything about a person from dress to demeanor was intended to convey that person’s economic and personal station in life.  Christians intentionally tore down those barriers and challenged each other to truly accept each other as brothers and sisters in Jesus.  The extraordinarily rich and the bitterly poor, the free and the slave, all came together to worship, to wash each others’ feet, and to eat at the same table.

These practices are what made their community stand out.  From some they received ridicule for them.  They were derided by some Roman patriarchs as a religion for the poor and outcast only, because of their willingness to receive anyone and everyone on equal terms.  Others saw their great love and their great works and marveled at them.  The emperor Julian the Apostate said about the community of Christians in Rome three hundred years after the beginnings of the movement in Jerusalem: “These Christians do not merely feed their own poor; they feed the poor of the whole city as well.”

This is the ministry which Jesus began among them.  He accepted everyone and never turned anyone away.  He had a special concern for the poor and he proclaimed that God had a special concern for the poor as well.  He shared all he had freely with everyone he met and he encouraged his followers to do the same as well.  What was it that made this radical approach to life possible in a dog eat dog world?

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann answers the question this way:

Why does the Pentecost community always have “more than enough?”  Because the power of the resurrection and the Spirit of fellowship have liberated them from the fear of death and from anxiety about life.  If God is for us, if God is in our midst, between each and all of us, then there is no longer any want, in any sector of life.  People share everything and share in everything, divide and confide all that they have.

In a very different time and place, where private property is actually called “sacred,” the challenge is to imagine how we can remain true to the heart of this ideal.  Indeed, it will require the power of the Spirit to transform the way we live together, to make us more and more generous and less and less focused on our own security.  Courage will be required of us, and creativity and a lively religious imagination just as much as a passionate commitment to justice.

This is why all of this begins with God.  Retired UCC pastor Richard Floyd shared in a recent Stillspeaking Devotional how he now sits in the pews during worship and contemplates his fellow church members.  He wonders what brings them to worship.  While he admits they have an engaging preacher and excellent music, he realized though that he has visited other churches where both the preaching and music are lackluster and still people came.  His reflections have lead him to the belief that something intangible but very real lies at the heart of what gathers a church community together.  There is something God has done that comes prior to all that we do.  It is God’s mercy.

In another devotional Tony Robinson expresses what that mercy looks like in his reflection on the 23rd Psalm.  Using the Jerusalem Bible’s translation of the familiar line, “I shall not want,” with “I lack nothing” he reflects: With God, I am enough.  Right now.  Right here.  A lot of missteps in life can be traced to a gnawing fear, a corrosive feeling that “I am not enough.”  Inadequate, lacking, insufficient, overlooked and under-valued – not enough.  If I get this, then I’ll be enough.  If I attain that, then I’ll be enough.  If they honor me, then I’ll be enough.  All sorts of voices – parent’s voices, advertisers’ voices, coach’s voices, the devil’s voice – whisper to us, hiss at us, and play on our fears – “You are not enough.”  These are lies.  With God, you are enough.

This is the mercy of God which the early followers of Jesus experienced from him.  They found this acceptance – complete, unconditional, loving, compassionate – in Jesus.  And though he died horribly on that cross, they found after his death that his message of God’s love, acceptance and forgiveness lived on.  They found new life and they found that he still lived among them, in their midst.  That was the power which formed them into a community of mercy which they continued to share and which broke down all the barriers the world continually wanted to erect.

One of my favorite parables related to this picture of the church is one in which the abbot of a dying monastery and a local Jewish rabbi meet regularly in the woods to commune and commiserate.  Both are discouraged with the lack of faith and practice in their worlds.  The elderly abbot complains about the crusty feistiness of the remaining four monks under his care – all old, all crotchety, all difficult.  On one of these meetings the Jewish rabbi brings a prophetic message that he himself is mystified by.  He tells the abbot that he doesn’t know why, but he feels compelled to inform his friend that one among those at the monastery is the Messiah.  Both feel embarrassed by this obviously inappropriate declaration and soon part to return to their homes.

At supper that evening, the abbot hesitantly tells of the rabbi’s strange message.  All five men laugh self-consciously and quickly move on to other conversation.  But in the days that follow, the atmosphere in the monastery begins to change.  Could Brother John be the Messiah?  Does Brother Elred speak with divine wisdom?  Is the tenacious care that the abbot gives a reflection of his holy office?

Within a month the quality of life in the monastery has changed.  Those who live in the neighborhood notice it, and begin attending worship services in the monastery chapel.  Families enjoy picnics on the lawns of the monastery, just to be near the older men who are wiser and kinder than any seemed to remember.  Then several young men asked to take vows to join the monastery, and before long, the monastery became the thriving center of a new city.  They no longer call it a monastery.  Instead they have posted signs at every entrance, welcoming all to come and join “Christ’s Community.”  Indeed, Messiah is among them!

This became a community formed by mercy.  That is who we are, too.  A community formed by mercy.  Because the Messiah is among us!  Who do you suppose it to be?

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