Monday, May 12, 2014

Radical and Old

Most alcoholics who quit drinking successfully do so through group therapy or a self-help group like Alcoholics Anonymous. Very few people recover by themselves. The advantages of such groups are that everyone is in the same boat. They can empathize with the struggles each member of the group is going through. They've been there and done that. They may even have advice only another recovering alcoholic would know. They can also detect any B.S. a member is indulging in and call him or her on it. And because we are social animals, members become part of a group with a ethos that defines them. Group support is important as is the natural feeling that one doesn't want to let your group down. The support of the group is very helpful in maintaining sobriety.

In Acts 2:42-47 we are looking at the early church right after Pentecost. If you could go back in time and join the first Christian gatherings, they would not look much like today's church. They had no buildings. They met in the temple, probably using the meeting rooms that were available, as well as in the homes of believers. They didn't have Bibles or hymnals or worship books. They didn't have a liturgy or written prayers. And yet we see the basics of the church to come in this passage. “They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” You'll probably recognize that from the questions we ask each baptismal candidate. Because right there we have several essential elements of Christian worship which we practice to this day. Let's look at each.

The apostle's teaching is listed first and this would have been a unique feature. If, as is likely, these early gatherings were based on the synagogue service of the time, they would be structured like the part of our service we call the Ministry of the Word. There were prayers and the reading of the scriptures, probably using the Septuagint, the official Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The teaching of the apostles would then follow, taking the place of the sermon. As we see in the sermons recorded in the book of Acts, the apostles especially used references to Christ from the Psalms and the prophets. But they also would have had a wealth of stories about what Jesus said and did. Imagine how it would have been to hear Peter, John, Thomas, or Matthew recall some incident that they experienced with Jesus—the time the storm almost swamped their boat, or how they tremulously handed out bits of the five loaves and two fishes to a hungry crowd of 5000 before realizing their baskets were not running out of food. Or imagine their chilling accounts of Jesus' passion, crucifixion and death. Or their awestruck accounts of that first Easter, the women's startling news and the sudden appearance of Jesus in their midst. Imagine the vividness of these eyewitness accounts. We get glimpses of these in the gospels: the fact that the grass was green at the time of the feeding of the 5000 or the exact position of Jesus' burial garments in the tomb.

We know that the canonical gospels made use of numerous sources. Luke speaks of investigating the events, checking with the eyewitnesses before writing his gospel and its sequel, the book of Acts. John Mark acted as secretary to both Peter and Paul, giving him access to a wealth of material,which is probably why his gospel was the first and was built upon by both Matthew and Luke. But those two gospels also have different sayings in common from a source other than Mark which scholars have dubbed Q. And each gospel has unique stories and sayings not found elsewhere. John has a separate source of stories and sayings of Jesus that does not overlap with those of the synoptic gospels but supplements them beautifully. How many of these come from these first days when the apostles were recalling and sharing this wealth of information illuminated by Jesus' post-resurrection teachings?

Next we are told that the first Christians were devoted to fellowship. Like a 12 Step program, this bonding is crucial. Just as it is hard for a person in recovery to navigate alone our hedonistic society, which openly advocates self-indulgence, it would have been hard to be a solitary Christian in Jerusalem. While outwardly looking like devout Jews, the early Christians would be seeing and interpreting everything in a different light. If you talked a lot about Jesus you would at best be tolerated by family and friends, the way we do when someone we know develops an enthusiasm for nutrition or exercise or a spiritual discipline. “Good for you” we say and then turn to our own interests. At the worst you would get into arguments with folks who were alarmed at your new devotion to a man who was, let's face it, killed for being a heretic and radical. They would try to set you straight or even complain to the local religious leaders about you. You might get thrown out of your synagogue. You needed the support of other Christians to maintain your walk with Christ and to keep from caving in to the pressure of family and friends to conform to traditional Judaism. Meeting with other Christians allowed you to share your concerns and triumphs in the faith with them and vice versa. The church for the first 300 years of its existence was a counter-cultural movement. It was swimming against the tide and it helped if you had others going your way.

Next we are told that the first Christians were devoted to the breaking of the bread. This is obviously the practice of participating in the Lord's Supper, sharing the bread and wine in Jesus' name. It probably came after the synagogue-style service, a uniquely Christian addition to their celebration, forming the basic structure of worship we still use. Again imagine what it was like to have one of those who were actually there at the last supper, recalling and reenacting how Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to the disciples, telling them “This is my body,” and then taking the cup, blessing it and passing it around, saying “This is my blood.” Imagine then what it would be like to receive bread and wine from the apostles and then invited to partake. It would be the next best thing to actually having been in that upper room on that Passover evening with Jesus. And so they ate his flesh and drank his blood in remembrance of Christ.

Next we are told that the first Christians were devoted to the prayers. I find it interesting that it says “the prayers” rather than “praying.” And I think it means that Christian prayers were already distinct from Jewish prayers. They were speaking to God in Jesus' name. They were asking for what they needed in Jesus' name. They didn't have to worry about making sacrifices for their sins because of what Christ did for them and they could therefore ask for forgiveness in Jesus' name. Because of him they knew they could “boldly approach the throne of grace” and address God as loving Father.

Usually when we look at this passage we stop there and feel that we have pretty much encapsulated the most important practices of the church. But there's more. And it makes us uncomfortable. But I'm a nurse and I'm trained to notice discomfort and to investigate it and its causes.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.” Actually the word translated “awe” is the Greek word phobos. That's one reason this passage makes us uncomfortable, especially if you read it in an older translation where it is rendered “fear.” But in the context “awe” is a good equivalent. The powers, primarily of healing, which the apostles displayed, got people's attention, validated the message the apostles preached and instilled a healthy respect for them among the people.

I am not going to suggest we need to enter the charismatic movement. I am in favor of healing services and speaking for my own experience, God has been very good to those we have prayed for and laid hands on in my parishes. But let's face it. People do not look at much of anyone in the church with awe or even a modicum of respect.

You know what might remedy that? If we were actually following Jesus. Surveys have shown that, contrary to popular opinion, the main reason why so many young people are dropping out of church is not that we aren't playing enough contemporary music or that we aren't on social media enough. It's that they see how we've been watering down Jesus' message and not behaving like him. Specifically, we are not showing the high personal morality and self-sacrificial love that characterize Christ's life and ministry. Look at the popularity of Pope Francis. He is saying and doing a lot of things that are more in line with the Spirit of Jesus than they are with the usual modus operandi of the Roman Catholic church. Imagine how people would react if he were to make actual changes in church policy and practice. People would regard that as nearly miraculous. If we, like Jesus, were less concerned with protecting the status quo and more willing to make exceptions to the rules for those in need, less focused on Sunday morning and more geared towards a day to day ministry, less worried about bringing them to us and more concerned about meeting them where they are, less concerned about defining who we are than discovering who our neighbor is and what he or she needs, people would be, if not awed, at the very least impressed by our commitment to live a Christ-like life.

Which brings us to the part of this passage we really shy away from: “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.” What are we to make of this early form of, less face it, communism? I had a history professor who argued that Marxist Communism was a Christian heresy, an attempt to create a sort-of materialist Christian society without Christ. So we in the West reacted by sanctifying capitalism. And we are still more concerned that there be no diminishing of anyone's right to make and keep as much money as they can than we are that everybody's basic needs be met. Nor do we want people begging in the streets or sleeping in doorways or in alleys or under bridges like some third world country. So we arrest them and put them in jail. The month before Fantasy Fest the sites where the homeless camp and congregate are swept and our jail population swells. Must keep things pretty for the tourists. We also don't want people who have lost their homes due to economic misfortune to have to live in their last major possession, their car; so we put them in jail as well. The fastest growing segment of the homeless, up to 30%, don't live in shelters but in their vehicles. We don't want the mentally ill wandering around untreated; so we put them in jail too. A third of the homeless are mentally ill. More than half of all prison and jail inmates are mentally ill. That's total. Only 45% of Federal prisoners are mentally ill but 56% of State prisoners and a whopping 64% of local jail inmates are mentally ill. We don't want our young people strung out on drugs or self-medicating with alcohol; so we put them in jail as well. Over half of the prison population has drug charges. 50% of all young black males in this country now have a record as do 40% of all young white males. 1 in 32 Americans is in prison. 25% of all the prisoners in the world are held in the US!

Jesus did say that we are serving him if we feed the hungry, clothe the underdressed, welcome the foreigner and visit those sick or in prison, but I don't remember him saying that to make such visits more convenient we should gather up all the least of his siblings and lock them up in one place! I certainly don't see our prisons as the logical outcome of what the first Christians are doing in verses 44 and 45.

I looked at a lot of commentaries on these verses and those that didn't skip past it but actually dealt with this disconcerting aspect of the newly formed body of Christ tried to explain it away as a one-time anomaly, not incumbent upon anyone today. No one saw it as, say, a manifestation of the Holy Spirit who just got poured out on the church a few verses before. And I'm not going to try to diminish what seems to be the plain sense meaning of this passage. This sharing of resources is the earliest and freshest expression of the kingdom of God by those filled with his Spirit. Make of this inspired part of the Word of God what you will.

That being said, we certainly can't ignore this amazing example of Christians caring for one another in radical and concrete ways. If we do stuff half as revolutionary and generous, the world will take notice.

And the world will, if verse 47 is anything to go by, be pleased with us. We are told that the first Christians had “the goodwill of the people.” The word in Greek is charis, meaning “favor, pleasure, grace.” Not many non-Christians regard us this way today. They see us bad mouth each other, defend the indefensible, and go after people for reasons they find inexplicable. They don't see us forgiving as we are forgiven. They don't see us treating others as we would like to be treated. They don't see us loving our neighbors as ourselves and they certainly don't see us loving our enemies. (Both of which, as G.K. Chesterton pointed out, are usually the same people!)

Jesus said it is by our love for one another that the world will know that we are his disciples. And disciple is just a fancy word for student. By that standard, I'm afraid most of us would be flunking out of Jesus school.

We do pretty well on the first 4 things we discussed: transmitting the teachings of the apostles, fostering fellowship, breaking bread together and saying the prayers. We rarely do anything that could be called miraculous even in a metaphorical sense and we are not creating radical ways of dealing with economic inequality, even within the church. Small wonder we are losing favor in the eyes of those outside the church.

The key to reviving our churches is usually said to be doing new things. And it's true that people are indiscriminately attracted to things that are new. But new does not always last. Remember laser discs? Or “I'm OK, You're OK” aka Transactional Analysis? Nor is every new idea always a good one. Lobotomies, anyone? Rather than ranking things by vintage, we need to ask if they are true or false, right or wrong. We need to take a page from Jesus who said in Matthew 13:52, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like a homeowner who brings out of his treasures things new and old.”

We need to be open to new ways to express and transmit the ageless truths of our faith and our practice. And we need to recover that which is awesome as well as that which makes us uncomfortable and commits us to radical generosity. It won't be easy. Though beginning it will be. All that requires is listening to the Spirit of God and saying “Yes.”

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