Second week of Easter 2018
April 8, 2018

Second week of Easter 2018

Passage: Acts 4:32-35

Last week we celebrated Easter. The church was filled with flowers. The 8 o’clock service had music. But this week, it all goes back to normal.

It’s like a couple getting married: after weeks of preparation and then the big day itself, suddenly it’s over. The presents stop arriving, the celebrity status shrivels up, and it’s back to normal.

Except that it’s not. If “normal” means the way it was before the wedding – well it’s nothing like before the wedding, because now you’re married. Now you’re “husband and wife.”

I remember checking into a French hotel on our honeymoon when someone addressed Cynthia as “Madame.” “Dear God” she thought, “I’m no longer a ‘Mademoiselle!’ I’m a ‘Madame.’” (I have to admit, I was a little hurt; was it really so bad to be “Madame Stelle”? Apparently, yes, it was!)

And the same is true of Easter. The flowers may be wilting and the 8 o’clockers are back to no music – but everything has changed. We’re no longer Mademoiselles. We’re the bride of Christ. Easter has happened. Resurrection has happened. And we have been changed.

So even thought this morning’s gospel reading includes the infamous “Doubting Thomas” passage, I don’t have much interest in that this morning. Do you have some doubts in the faith? That’s fine; so does everyone else. So when it’s time for communion, just come forward and receive the grace of God, who has no doubts about his love for you. It’s still Easter, after all. Let’s just revel in the good news that we are resurrected with Christ. After all, if Christ can conquer sin and death; if Christ can defeat the powers of hell, let’s just assume that any little struggles with doubts really aren’t a problem at all!

What I’d like to spend time with this morning is that reading from Acts where it describes the new community of faith amongst that first generation of believers:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common….There was not a needy person among them (Acts 4:32).

The Psalm expressed a similar theme:

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)

What makes this description of Christian community so distinctly appropriate for Easter is the way it fulfills exactly what Jesus prayed for prior to his death.

I ask…that they may all be one (Jesus prayed). As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us… The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me (John 17:20).

According to Jesus’ prayer, evangelism (it turns out) is not principally a matter of telling non-Christians about our theology. The first and most important “method” of evangelism is the way we actually live together in love. When we live together as God lives, that is how the world will come to know the truth about Jesus.

And this is what we see so clearly amongst these early Christians:

First it says that the whole group was of one heart and soul, with nobody claiming private ownership of anything.

Second, it says that with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of Jesus.

Third, it reemphasizes that there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what they sold.

The book of Acts will go on to describe the spread of the gospel throughout the Mediterranean world. But the first picture we’re given of evangelism is that it principally happens within the context of a community of Christians loving one another with practical, authentic, and extreme generosity.

This is an Easter message because we believe that – through Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection – we have now been made alive in Christ and given the freedom to participate in his resurrection life. We can live this kind of radical life, because we have been made one with God, and this is how God lives, and God wants nothing less for us.

Of course, you may say, that this idyllic picture of Christian community is unrealistic. And, sure enough, you don’t have to get much further in the New Testament before you see the Christian community squabbling and complaining and being petty. But I ask you,

Does unworthy behavior nullify the worthy ideal for which we strive?

Does hypocrisy make void the standard of love?

Does sin cancel out truth?

No. Never.

What is true and worthy remains true and worthy, regardless of our hypocrisies. And as the body of Christ, we strive exclusively for what comes from God. Unity, love, and generosity must be the trademarks of the church – the church throughout the world, and the church at St. John’s, Gig Harbor.

So, in practical ways, what can this look like? I’ve seen it take many forms.

During the 1960s and 70s the Troubles in Northern Ireland were at their peak. And to the church’s great shame, this violence was defined by our Christian division: Catholic and Protestant. The whole world bore witness to the church divided: spewing hatred and being complicit in outright terrorism.

And then, by an act of God, Christians on both sides of the divide began to experience an overwhelming outpouring of the Holy Spirit in an unprecedented Charismatic manner, just like in the early church: miracles, prophecies, tongues, healings. And neither side could lay claim to the phenomena – there was no living memory of such an outpouring of the Spirit. Suddenly prayer groups were forming: Catholic nuns and Presbyterian housewives, coming together in unity and worship.

And a young Anglican priest and his wife found themselves at the center of this movement. Cecil Kerr was the chaplain at Queen’s University, Belfast. And as he and the students who were part of this revival committed themselves to prayer, God called them to create a community of renewal and reconciliation, a place where Protestants and Catholics would live together in Christian unity: working, worshipping, loving, welcoming.

And so the Christian Renewal Centre was born. For over three decades it was a hub for Christians throughout Ireland who believed in unity. And the way they lived together became one of the strongest voices that countered the voices of violence in Northern Ireland.

The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me.

When I was a college student I belonged to a Christian group where we sought to live out this kind of love – particularly when it came to our possessions. Not many of us had cars, but those who did would freely loan them to one another, without concern for the potential risk. We left our dorm rooms unlocked and they became havens for lonesome students, who always knew they were welcome there – that we valued our relationship with them more than we valued our stuff. “Why are you doing this?” they’d ask, as they lounged on our couches and ate our food. “Because we follow Jesus, and this is how he shows us to live.” It was self-evident to them how we loved each other and without having to cram the gospel down their throats, many of them came to discover the love of God for themselves.

The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me.

Admittedly, it’s easier to live this way when we don’t possess much. A college student with a thrift store couch doesn’t need to worry about someone spilling food on it. Loaning someone a Chevy Nova is different than loaning a new Lexus. And so what we find is that the quality of our stuff can often inhibit the quality of our love. And that is a shameful thing.

But there are many ways it happens at St. John’s. Consider our baptismal banners that greet every person who gets baptized here. Each one is personally embroidered with their name. They’re tangible signs of a church that welcomes them in love. But more specifically, they’re the tangible signs of Joyce Violette whose love is manifest through the time (and the embroidery machine!) that she has.

The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me.

And I do believe that many of us would choose to be generous with our things, but our daily lives don’t overlap with each other. The opportunities to respond to one another’s needs simply go unnoticed. We see each other on Sundays where we share the liturgy and we share coffee, but we aren’t sharing our need for a ride to the airport or the loan of an air compressor. And I assure you, if there were any way to foster this kind of practical generosity in the church, I’d be all for it.

But the more I think about it, the more I’m coming to believe that the most natural way to foster this kind of living is the way we choose to live with our neighbors.

That’s actually what’s been happening at our house lately. Some new, young neighbors moved in. We welcomed them with fresh scones (as you do). This turned into a dinner invitation. Then it was loaning tools as they did work on their new home. Turns out he’s a beer aficionado, so pretty soon I was over there drinking and learning about beer that was way better than I ever buy. At Christmas the husband came with me to church to help hang the angels from the rafters. They just got a riding lawn mower and now we’re building a gate between our yards so that my kids can drive their lawn mower over to our yard when it’s time for them to mow the grass.

It feels a lot like what we read in Acts. It’s generous. It’s loving. It’s community. In a word, it feels like God. It’s a truer, happier way of living. So I experience the church when I go to work every day. And life with my family is a form of church as well. And now I’m getting church with my neighbors, too. It might be a loose definition of the term – but I tell you what – it sure feels a true definition: when fences are replaced with gates and strangers are sitting down to the table together.

This is Easter living – when selfishness gives way to generosity, when lonesomeness gives way to community. This is a gospel that’s low in dogma, but rich in love.

As followers of Jesus we now have a wholly different way of regarding our stuff. Possessions are now resources for the Kingdom of God, where there is no such thing as hoarding. There is only love. When we discover that someone is in need, the question now becomes, “What do I have that could bless them?”

We are living Christ’s resurrection. Our possessions are God’s possessions. We can keep them to ourselves or we can discover the greater pleasure of participating in God’s gracious and generous love.

The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me.