- John 20:19-31
- Acts 4:32-35
This week we are coming down off of the high that is inspired by Easter. At least I am – and I have heard more than one person comment with appreciation for the many good things that happen on Easter Sunday. The one Sunday of the year that some come to church, the Sunday with the flowers, brunch, special music and the Alleluia Chorus. This year, the Sunday with baptisms in the lake! All of that celebrating is great, but now it’s a week later, the Sunday often called ‘Low Sunday’ because of that contrast. But it’s still Easter and though there are less butts in seats this week than there were last, we are still a resurrection body. We live out our call to embody Christ’s resurrection all year round, and not just on fun holidays.
Today in scripture we hear about the new church, the community of believers who need to reshape themselves into something new and different than they had been before Jesus was killed and resurrected. Having a leader who was no mere teacher, but had, as he had said been killed because of his radical teaching and action but then risen – a conqueror of death, of violence, of the powers of this world. Having that Jesus put the community into a new space of figuring out what it meant to be not a rag tag group of disciples but a resurrection body. They looked at each other with the eyes freshly opened.
Jesus appeared to the disciples after her rose. First to Mary, as we heard about on Easter Sunday, and then in a room where they were holed up, freaked out trying to wrap their heads around this new idea. Jesus says to them “Peace be with you.” He says “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And he says “As my father has sent me, so I send you.”
The disciples: response? “We have seen the Lord,” they tell Thomas, who wasn’t there to witness it. Thomas doubts, of course. He’ll never live that one down. But then he too has the response, “My Lord and my God!” Amazement, believe. And the text tells us that he did many other signs. Why? So that we might believe that Jesus Christ is Son of God and that through believing may have life in his name.
So…what is life in Jesus’ name? What does a church that has received the holy Spirit look like? Not only we are asking ourselves that question, those first post-resurrection disciples were asking themselves that. With this new situation, new configuration, now that we’ve blinked a few times, what do we do? By the time of the events recorded in Acts came about, they had it a little more figured out. They had been enlivened at Pentecost, receive the Spirit of God and active in the mission of the church, still asking lots of questions but on fire with the Gospel message.
There are many snapshots in Acts of what the early church was like: They prayed together regularly, processed decisions intensely, sent missionaries far afield, gave aid to people in need, engaged in debate with religious leaders, healed the sick, taught each other, worshipped. The specific picture we get from the verses we read in Acts 4 touch on one area of the church’s life together: the way they shared everything they owned.
Acts 4:32-34 32 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. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.
The focus of this group of believers was not on the pre-resurrection Jesus, not even on his death or on the cross. That was still part of their experience of him; they didn’t forget his teaching or example, but the were enlivened by his living presence continuing with them in Spirit, offering peace, sending them out. This focus on the empty tomb, the fullness with the Holy Spirit, and also the expectation of his return, allowed them to do the many ministries. “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.”
Now, the church in Acts was different from the present day church in many ways, of course. Those followers of The Way needed to share with each other because they were in danger. They were persecuted. But they were also energized by the newness of the movement. Joy in them over Jesus’ resurrection bubbled up into generosity, excitement, sense of focus and commitment. They had a strong eschatological hope – thought they would encounter Jesus again soon. Similar to the early Anabaptists in many ways. Without the same challenge how to we continue to live as a resurrection church? What makes us Christian?
As I was reading about these verses in Acts I found the author and theologian William Willimon’s commentary and immediately resonated with his observations about exactly this question. He says:
When you think about it, the quality of the church’s life together is evidence for the truthfulness of the resurrection. The most eloquent testimony to the reality of the resurrection is not an empty tomb or a well-orchestrated pageant on Easter Sunday but rather a group of people whose life together is so radically different, so completely changed from the way the world builds a community, that there can be no explanation other than that something decisive has happened in history. The tough task of interpreting the reality of a truth like the resurrection is not so much the scientific or historical, “How could a thing like that happen?” but the ecclesiastical and communal, “Why don’t you people look more resurrected?”
The Christians in Acts looked resurrected because they really were so radically different than the world around them – no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free, no male nor female – wow! They did everything together.
As a community of disciples, we need each other. We can’t be Christian for long alone. We might not live in community and share our money with each other – at least not as a whole congregation, although some of us practice this in limited ways with each other. And we give our money in our offerings. But how do we share with each other in the resurrection body? We do this often through the gifts of our time, our talent, our passions for the building up of our body.
Several years ago, before I was a pastor here, maybe before many of you were part of the congregation, SMC gathered in a series of retreats to talk about its vision and about the charisms of the community. (Lee mentioned these earlier). This term is from Greek word for spiritual, or gratuitous gifts or favours. The materials I inherited about this visioning process name charisms in this way:
As a Christian community, a charism is expressed as outreach from the whole community and is at the heart of their spirituality. For example, the followers of St. Francis of Assisi are known for the charism of voluntary poverty. Another community is know for its ministry with street children, while another may be known for its care of the sick and dying.
Charismatic identity is what we become together by the grace of God…Features that, collectively are often referred to as the charism of the institution or the spirit of the congregation. Charism as it applies to a congregation is best understood as the ongoing deep narrative developed throughout the community’s history…a powerful energy field.
The charisms that this body discerned as the things that were bubbling up from our midst are things that are still true today as the ongoing narrative of the congregation: community ministry, worship, discernment, welcome and hospitality. How do we engage our own gifts in the life force of this resurrection congregation? A little later, we will have opportunity to meditate on that and to move physically in our offering and release our personal charisms.
Back in the day – and I mean way back in the day, back to that first group of disciples experiencing the resurrected Christ – it was all new. Too new to even have any comprehension of what the Spirit would give, too new to understand that a risen Christ would be so much more powerful than the teacher they had followed for three years. The world was broken open and the opportunity lay before them to be something new and different and amazing.
We are invited this day to see with new eyes. We have the advantage of hindsight but the challenge of seeing with new eyes in a 2000 year old church in a 40 year old congregation when it feels like every conversation has been had 1000 times, everything has been processed to death, every decision takes a committee. I feel that frustration. Did you ever hear the joke: How many Mennonites does it take to screw in a light bulb? Well, first you need to have the congregational meeting to discern the person to do the job, facilities committee to decide what kind of energy saving light bulbs we’ll use, then the fellowship committee to plan the potluck, the pastor will bless and commission the worker…and on and on.
Okay, a little over the top, but it does feel like that. And yet we do each have something to give, and when we think about how to look more resurrected, it’s not in the committee meeting itself, but in the results – in the worship, in the fellowship meal, in the children’s contributions to worship facilitated by the Atrium, in gathering in each others’ homes, in the Sunday school classes and discussions…we find our home with each other, our fellow disciples of the Way. It about what bubbles up from the Spirit in each of us.
When Jesus met with those disciples the first time, Thomas was the doubter. He was on the outside, unbelieving but was invited in – both from testimony from his friends and by Jesus himself. This drawing in happens at a different pace for everyone, no doubt. I’ve heard many people speak of their outsider-ness in this congregation. And in some ways we are all aliens, whether we’ve been here 3 months or 30 years. Thomas doubted but was still back with the group the following week when Jesus appeared. His doubt did not exclude him from continuing in worship and fellowship with his community.
As we receive the gift of testimony in these next weeks of Easter, we will catch glimpses of the Spirit’s work in the lives of our community members new and old, peripheral and central (however they each define their connection). And these testimonies will give evidence of the many ways that God works in our lives.
Again Willimon’s words:
…The same wonder-working power of the Spirit which made a lame man walk in the preceding section [of Acts] has enabled a man named Barnabas [in the next section] to sell his field and to give the proceeds to the apostles, who made distribution of such gifts to those in need (cf. Deut. 15:4–5). The church takes care of its own, [and it’s own, when it comes to smc is a net pretty broadly cast, I think] thus creating in its life together a kind of vignette, a paradigm of the sort of world God intends for all. …The power which broke the bonds of death on Easter, shattered the divisions of speech at Pentecost, and empowered one who was lame now releases the tight grip of private property.
Likewise the Spirit enables us to release us to give of or reallocate our time and gifts and offer them up to God and community. The church was called and is yet called to be an alternative community, a sign, a signal to the world that Christ had made possible a way of life together unlike anything the world had seen.
I invite you to look at this community with the new eyes that the disciples looked at Jesus. May we find ourselves to be ever more the resurrected body of Christ, something indeed like the world has not seen. May we discover the gifts that are yet to be awakened in our midst. And may the testimony of our brothers be alive with the fullness of the Spirit.