Sunday, May 15, 2011

The new community of the Spirit

Acts 2:42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 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. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Sermon: The New Community of the Spirit

Do you remember “photo albums”? They were these big loose-leafed books that people would take and paste their photos into. My photographs don’t quite get to the “album” stage ... I have hundreds and hundreds of photos in a file cabinet in our garage that will never get pasted neatly into these photographic scrapbooks with their little handwritten descriptions that distinguish Uncle Ed from Aunt Sally as if Ed’s mustache wasn’t enough.

Photo albums represent a time before nearly everything became “virtual” ... practically real, but not quite. Anymore, we take photos that rarely get transformed into physical photographs ... most often they exist only as an assemblage of electronic information. Now I have a virtual file cabinet crammed with photos.

But whether “real” or “virtual”, there is something quite wonderful about “snapshots” ... they are instant portraits of life ... freeze-frame images of friends and family often doing what they do best ... eating a meal ... sharing a laugh ... multiple generations held in one another’s arms while also being held in one another’s love. Snapshots don’t tell us all there is to know, but they do give us a good glimpse into the life of a family or a community.

My maternal grandfather was a professional photographer, but I have to admit that as much as I cherish his artistic enlargements, such as the ones that are hanging in my office, it may be his “snapshots” that I cherish even more. Many of these are black and white photos of surprising clarity that depict my family’s life 30-40 years before I was born. There’s Grandpa Leo cutting a dashing figure with a foot perched on the running board of his latest jalopy. There’s Grandma Colene looking a bit shy and wistful. There’s little Faithe, my mom, wearing a new pinafore and looking the perfect blend of the parents who bore her. And so it goes with snapshots that give us little glimpses of worlds and lives that have gone before us.

Whereas cameras have only been recording images “instantly” for fewer than two hundred years, the act of capturing a scene through painting is thousands of years old. But I would argue that the real pre-cursor to photography ... to “snapshots” ... is the art of capturing a scene with words. This morning’s reading is a perfect example.

Our reading comes from the book of the ACTS of the Apostles. This is the second of two biblical books written by the author of the Gospel of Luke. This is, if you will, “Luke, Part II” or “Luke, The Sequel.” Or who knows? Maybe Acts was written first and Luke is the “prequel.”

In any event, Luke ends with the death and resurrection of Jesus and Acts picks up with the ascension of Jesus into heaven and the subsequent coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Now in our observance, the Day of Pentecost, as described in the first part of the second chapter of Acts, is still ahead ... some 50 days after Easter. But this morning we are given a portrait of the community of faith AFTER Pentecost. This is a snapshot of the church in the days following the coming of the Spirit. It is what the community of the Spirit looks like put into a rough sketch by Luke’s words. And so what do we see when we peer into the photo album of this “New Community of the Spirit”? What marked the life of the community?

· They shared a simple communal life of meals and prayers

· They experienced the power of God breaking forth in new ways

· There was a spirit of equality and generosity

· Their lives together were marked by a simple and abundant joy

· They lived at peace and harmony with their neighbors

· And they could not help but grow

So ... where do we sign up? How can we get some of that?

Let’s be clear that what Luke is describing is not a group of people who got together and planned and strategized this happy communal experience into existence. Luke is describing a community that the Spirit of God breathed into existence. Luke is describing a community and its characteristics that are a result of the blowing of the Spirit’s powerful, healing, motivating, transforming and unifying breath. For their part, the community simply heeded the instructions to gather and wait for the coming of the Spirit. And when the Spirit came, the community Luke describes was the result.

Now mind you, this is a community that had just lost its beloved leader and teacher ... they’d lost their heart and soul and very breath. The loss was staggering and they were still staggering. They not only had that loss to absorb and to comprehend, but they were also a community very much beset by the powers that be ... both the religious and the civil authorities. When they assembled, they did so knowing that (Life Together, again) it was at great risk to their lives and the continued existence of their fragile community.

Isn’t it true that sometimes communities on the margins and communities that live counter to the dominant culture are sometimes the richest communities there are? And not rich, of course, in monetary wealth, but rich in mutual love and meaning and joy.

And let’s be sure that Luke’s snapshot in words doesn’t tell ALL there is to tell ... it doesn’t describe what we also know to be the pain of community. It’s a rosy picture Luke creates with his words ... there are sepia tones that hint at the “idealized” nature of this portrait. It’s like a description of the early days of a marriage before the kids came and the job was lost and things got harder ...

When Luke was written, there were already “fault lines” and “hairline cracks” in the church that had taken Jesus’ name ... just as when the photos were taken of my mother’s family, there were already stresses present that would lead to my grandparent’s divorce.

It is as if Luke wants to remind future generations of “the New Community of the Spirit” of what is possible when the wind of the Spirit is allowed to blow freshly and repeatedly over their lives.

· a rich communal life

· the power of God

· equality and generosity

· simple and abundant joy

· a neighborly peace

· and growth

Don’t forget, Luke says, don’t forget what you are at your purest as God’s community on this earth. Luke lives and writes a full generation or two following the community he is describing. And he wishes to preserve this glimpse into the church at its inception so that no matter what future ecclesiastical battles and scandals were brewing, the church could look back and glimpse its younger, truer self. And seeing itself before it got full of itself and all serious and somber, it might be freed once more to be God’s New Community of the Spirit, that is: a rich communal life where the power of God is expressed in equality and generosity, and simple and abundant joy, and peace with its neighbors.

If you were here on Easter Sunday, you’ll remember my description of the group of French Catholic monks who lived and ultimately died living amongst and in service to their poor Muslim neighbors. As I read Luke’s description of the New Community of the Spirit and as I make my own attempt to distill that portrait into a few succinct words, it’s hard to think of a community I’ve “known” that better fits that description: a rich communal life where the power of God is expressed in equality and generosity, and simple and abundant joy, and peace with its neighbors.

The brothers of that little community may have wielded little power as the world understands power. But let’s be certain that the power of their “love of neighbor” on their poor neighbors was immediate and profound. And let’s acknowledge the broader effect and wider witness resulting from their martyrdom as they remained true to their love for each other and their call to serve in the Spirit of Jesus.

So here we are, many dozens of generations removed from Luke’s description of that happy little band of disciples ... as with the rapid growth of the church following Pentecost, the world has grown and become impossibly complex. And the truth we all know is that we can never go back to what was, we can never go back to when life was simpler and purer and sweeter ... we cannot recreate and recapture Luke’s description any more than can inhabit the world in my family’s photo albums before the “trouble” came.

What we can do, is what Luke, perhaps, intended all along, and that is to be challenged and moved in our own communities by the description of community at its best ... to distill his observations into some principles that can shape and guide us as we move steadfastly into a future that cannot be known ... but can be entered with a particular mindset and intentionality.

And so let me return to that succinct description of the New Community of the Spirit:

· They shared a simple communal life of meals and prayers

o No one is an island. We become complete individuals in no small part through the gifts of one another. And when the community becomes a dynamic organism of souls, it is no less a miracle than our own human bodies with its wondrous variety and interdependence and its ability to survive and thrive against so many odds. And at the heart of our communal life should be the nourishment of our bodies and souls ... simple meals and heartfelt prayers during which we can

· The power of God was breaking forth in new ways

o We can—you and I—be conduits of God’s power that is best known as “love” ... when we open ourselves to embodying and expressing that love all around us, extraordinary things can happen ... walls of enmity and distrust can fall ... lives broken by violence or neglect can find healing and new purpose ... wars can end ... the hungry can be fed ... exiles of all kinds can find their way home.

· There was a spirit of equality and generosity

o Ah ... apparently those who would shape the American policies on taxation are strangers to Luke’s description of community. If there was a single part of this description of community that could work its way into the public bloodstream, I guess this is the one I’d wish for. If our leaders and legislators could look in the mirror each morning and ask of the face looking back at them: “How could I today seek the best for those I serve? And how can I help bring an equality of safety and security and opportunity and material essentials to those I serve? And how can I engender a spirit of generosity so that I and those I serve will always seek to serve and never ignore the needs of my neighbors.

o If we’re going to talk about equality and generosity, then it’s worth noting that philosopher Ayn Rand is back in the news. She is the author of “Atlas Shrugged” which has just been made into a movie, she was the leading proponent in her time of a “rugged individualism” that is antithetical in almost every way to the word “community”. Jim Wallis called her: the shameless promoter of the gospel of aggressive self-interest. It is the “me first” and “me only” philosophy of people and communities like her that make it so hard to create of this world a neighborhood. Congressman Paul Ryan is the architect of the latest Republican budget proposal that severely punishes those who have the misfortune to be poor Americans. And it will come as no surprise to you to learn that he greatly admires Ayn Rand and requires his staff to read her. Jim Wallis notes that he wishes Ryan required his staff to read the Bible instead.

· Their lives together were marked by joy

o Joy ... “I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart” ... Joy is that deep, natural uprising from one’s soul and out of the shared soul of the community that comes when we know that we are doing our best together, serving together, tending to one another and tending to our neighbors. Joy is an outcome ... it is not a happy face and a fancy wrapping, but the result of good living and honest living and generous, purposeful living. Joy is the shared song sung by communities that live well.

· They lived at peace and harmony with their neighbors

o Healthy, well-balanced communities, like healthy, well-balanced individuals never feel threatened by others, by their neighbors, by those who are different. It is the soul-confidence and soul-competence of individuals and their communities that allows them to create inter-dependant relationships with others, not competitive relationships.

o It is puzzling and troubling to me that the church has far too often defined itself over against its neighbors in the world faith community and has felt itself to be in competition with other faiths and Jesus our champion.

o Similarly puzzling and troubling is our nation’s struggle to see the world as a neighborhood, as Martin Luther King described it ... a neighborhood we learn to care for one another and respect and value one another. If someone in any neighborhood attempts to garner all the wealth and power, that’s not a neighborhood that knows much “peace and harmony”.

o In the midst of more bombastic responses to the threats of the world around us, I’d like to think that generously serving our international neighbors may be the surest way to the security and peace that we seem to think can only be achieved through a well-funded military.

For years, cynical people have loved to poke fun at Mr. Rogers of Public Television fame. It was always a “beautiful day” in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. But beneath the seemingly child-like philosophy of the program was a very focused and determined Presbyterian minister by the name of the Reverend Fred Rogers who took very seriously the need to express and live out the simple spirit of the Christian community at its very best and its very purest, that is: a rich communal life where the power of God is expressed in equality and generosity, and simple and abundant joy, and peace with its neighbors.

No gospel of aggressive self-interest ... but a gospel of loving generosity and concern.

And let us not be surprised—and indeed, let us celebrate—that it was Presbyterians of Fred Roger’s ilk who this week helped bring Presbyterians to a new place of loving acceptance as they opened doors long closed to the full embrace and acceptance of lesbian and gay women and men into the gospel ministry—the good news of God’s love for all. It’s a beautiful day in their neighborhood.

We create neighbors and neighborhood whenever we embrace and embody those simple principles of community described in that snapshot of words by Luke so long ago: a rich communal life where the power of God is expressed in equality and generosity, and simple and abundant joy, and peace with its neighbors.

Every time one of my favorite communities prepares to sit down and share the simple goodness of their evening meal, they first stand humbly at their chairs and they sing this prayer, which is my prayer for us and our community as we seek to make of our world a “beautiful neighborhood” of mutual love and concern:

Happy those who with their hands,
bring to harvest, the fruits of earth.
Blessed are we to share this share this food,
served with loving care and faithfulness.
May we strive to share with those
whose hunger knows no end.
With thanksgiving let us be
as good as God for others.

(Weston Priory)


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