May 3, 2020 (Fourth Sunday of Easter)
Holy Wisdom Sunday Assembly
In today’s reading from Acts, Luke speaks about the life of the early Christian community in Jerusalem. The community, he tells us, devoted itself to four things—the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer.
Luke mentions the apostles’ teaching first, because it gives substance and form to the community’s whole life. But what was this teaching. Unlike Christian teachers today, the apostles had no doctrines or canon laws to pass on, because these things did not yet exist. They had only the story of Jesus and this story is what they taught. They shared Jesus’ teaching– parables like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son and sayings like those in the Sermon on the Mount. They taught the community, as Jesus had taught them, that love commandment sums up Jesus’ whole message. Love God! Love your neighbor; and remember neighbor includes the outcast , the criminal , and your enemy. A major theme of the Jesus story the apostles taught was the conflict between Jesus and the Powers that rule this world. Jesus’ message of unconditional love and universal reconciliation shook the foundations of the world these Powers ruled and threatened their control, just as it does today. So, they did their best to destroy him, inflicting great suffering and death on him. But that’s not the end of the story. Resurrection is the end and that’s what we’re celebrating during these great 50 days. This story, or rather Jesus, the protagonist of the story, is the Center of the community’s life.
Luke goes on to tell us how this early Christian community lived out this Christ-center life. They embodied and expressed it, he tells us, in fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer. Their fellowship was not a superficial “hail fellow well met” kind of fellowship. It was formed and nurtured by the breaking of bread in remembrance of Jesus. When they broke bread together, they were reminded of Jesus’ meal fellowship with his disciples, with prostitutes and tax collectors and crowds and of his last meal with the twelve and felt his presence very powerfully. The fellowship in this community was deep and radical. Verses 44 and 45 reveal how radical it was. “All who believed had all things in common. They would sell their property and belongings and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had needs.” The radical sharing in this community is virtually unimaginable in our hyper-capitalistic society. Perhaps that’s why some commentators suggest that Luke idealizes the Jerusalem community in this passage. I doubt this, since Luke includes in Acts descriptions of events that reveal the conflicts and failures of the community as well as its strengths.
After describing the community’s practices, Luke speaks about its Spirit. It is a community filled with awe. What is the source of this awe? These early Christians were awed by the love they saw in Jesus as they got to know him through the apostles’ teaching. They were also awed by the love they felt living within and among them and by the new life they were living that they had received from him
This community was also brimming over with joy. The Greek word Luke uses for joy, aggalliasei, means not just ordinary joy. Aggalliasei is wild joy, joy on the verge of ecstasy. The early Christian community in Jerusalem was wildly joyful.
Where did this joy come from? Certainly not from its worldly circumstances. Most first century Christians were poor, and some were slaves. Paul alludes to this in I Corinthians when he writes “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” First century Christians were doubly vulnerable, because Christianity was illegal. If they were turned in by their neighbors, they could be carted away to torture and death at any time of day or night. We think we’re living through a tough time now, and we are. But the early Christian community faced far greater dangers and was far less privileged. Yet they were wildly joyful. The source of their joy was the same as the source of their awe—Jesus, and most particularly, his resurrection. Their belief that Jesus was alive was unshakable. To echo something that Paul Knitter said two weeks ago, although there may have been some in the community who had seen the risen Jesus, most members had not. They believed not because they saw the risen Jesus, but because they experienced him living in them and in their community. They believed because they experienced his presence in the teaching of the apostles, in the fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayer. The joy present in this community was resurrection joy. These Christians were Easter people and alleluia was their song. They believed that Jesus was alive and that in the End life and love would prevail in the universe.
But they were not Pollyannas, because the Apostles had taught them the whole Jesus story. They had warned the community about thieves and robbers in the world and taught them what these thieves and robbers had done to Jesus. They told them these thieves and robbers would try to steal them away from Jesus. They had also reminded them that Jesus did not return abuse for abuse or threaten those who tortured and killed him but continued to love them and even asked God to forgive them. The apostles had also taught the community that they were called to follow Jesus’ example. So, the thoughts in today’s Gospel and in reading from I Peter would not have seemed strange to them.
The members of the early Christian community in Jerusalem believed with all their hearts that Jesus was alive, and that life and love would prevail in the End. But they also knew that love prevailed only through suffering and that authentic life could be found only by dying to a false life devoted to the pursuit of worldly power and glory, a life they had renounced in baptism.
This community about which we have been speaking lived way over there and way back then. What does this community have to do with us today? Well, that community is our community. We stand in direct continuity with these early Christians. We are called to the same Easter faith and I for one, have never felt a greater need for it than in this time of pandemic and political chaos. We are also, like the early Christian community, broken and needy and that’s OK, in fact it’s good, because that’s how the light of God gets in. But in spite of our brokenness as individuals and as a community, we like the early Christians, are being transformed through the Spirit. On our best days, we, too, are awed by the presence of the living Jesus and his love in and among us. We too are called to devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer and are offered the same joy and called to a similar generosity. Of course, as the author of I John writes, we don’t yet know what we will be, but we can hope and pray that we will continue to grow and deepen in our awe of God’s love, in our love for one another, and in our joy and generosity.