Grace Presbyterian Church
November 13, 2016
Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35
Living in the Shadow
It is not often that in the process of developing a sermon over the week I come to a point of throwing everything away, including the chosen scripture, and start completely over. In fact, this is the first time I’ve gone and changed the scripture reading altogether, removing what I had chosen before and putting something completely different in its place.
Not that the scheduled scriptures from the lectionary were wrong or bad. In three years I’ll probably come back to them. The passage from Luke is the kind that needs to be explored and explained now and then, as Jesus says things that are hard to understand and rather frightening. The passage from Isaiah is quite beautiful, and offers a vision of God’s ultimate realm that has transcended scripture to become a recognizable image even in popular culture.
But right now, that’s not we need to talk about. Not this week.
We need to talk about right now, in the place and time where we live. And we need to talk about the church and what it is meant to be in such a time.
The two short vignettes from the Acts of the Apostles capture a moment in the history of the early church, a fleeting moment at that, both idyllic and thoroughly unrealistic. The passage from Acts 2 portrays the early community of Christ-followers in the wake of Pentecost as being in seemingly constant fellowship, gathered around the teaching of the apostles, prayer, and fellowship at the table. Deeds of power were being done among them. The world looked on in approval.
And what is briefly mentioned here is amplified in the passage from Acts 4; the believers were together and even selling off possessions to provide for the needs of those with less. This is where these two passages become stuff that some people would like to rip out of the Bible, fearing the horrible dread spectre of “socialism!” You’ll note that Bernie Sanders did not get elected president this week; that spectre is still enough to provoke distrust among interpreters of scripture.
Where this passage is particularly needful in this moment, however, is not just in pictures of socialist utopias or great miracle-working or even sharing food. These two scriptures are significant not only in text but also in context, and we, living in the moment we do now, need to pay close attention to that context.
Recall that the book of Acts begins with Luke’s account of the ascension of Jesus. After a quick conference to choose a replacement for the betrayer Judas Iscariot, the story moves immediately to the day of Pentecost. Thus what we see in Acts 2 is at least portrayed as happening soon after the ascension, which is reckoned to be forty days after the resurrection. After the Acts 2 account, we get from Luke the story of a healing in the Temple, another large sermon by Peter, and their arrest by Temple authorities and appearance before the council.
In short, this happens very early in the life of the church, or more precisely even before the life of the “church” – we are speaking of a small group within the adherents of Judaism practicing their religious life centered around the Temple in Jerusalem. They’re still a long way from being a church of their own, and the coming disputes with the Temple authorities are at this point an intra-religious dispute within the religious establishment in Jerusalem, a disagreement within Judaism.
The idyllic scene portrayed here doesn’t last. Before too long disagreements will break out over the distribution of relief between Jewish and Gentile widows in the community, and before too long (starting around Acts 12) much of the community will be scattered beyond Jerusalem. The demands of such intimate and ever-present community became overwhelming. But the situation in which they exist in these two passages is not dramatically dissimilar to the one in which a church like ours finds itself right now.
We don’t live in an empire. The United States may well be the most powerful nation on earth, but we don’t quite qualify as an empire in the mold of the Roman Empire, or even of the old British Empire of which we were once a part. We do, however, project influence around the globe – not just militarily, but even more so economically and culturally.
At the same time it is unmistakable that we in this country have seen many of its religious leaders (including sons of two of the most famous preachers in US history) accommodate themselves tremendously to the apparatus of empire, in hopes (not unlike the religious leaders of first-century Jerusalem) to maintain their power and influence. Let there be no mistaking this: such preachers have declared by their actions that their allegiance and desire is much more to this flag over here than to this cross behind me. And not unlike those to whom Luke described Jesus as attributing “woes” in last week’s reading of the Beatitudes, they have their reward.
And all the more damning to those religious leaders is that in the days since Tuesday’s election results became clear, this country has experienced numerous outbreaks of racial or ethnic or gender harassment, vandalism, bullying,, intimidation, and threats. Many of those acts have taken place in schools, among our young people. A swastika, or the slogan “Make America White Again,” painted on a wall; flyers under the windshield wipers of cars threatening immigrants if they don’t leave the USA; black students at one school being added to a social media list with the title "Lynching Party" and frankly more than can be enumerated here (I had originally written about two hundred such events, but the number is now quite higher.). And those religious leaders who have adapted themselves to empire haven’t said one word against these attacks. Believe me, I’ve looked. Not one.
For all of the trauma that many have experienced since Election Day, there is one thing that remains true: our call as the church, Christ’s body here on earth, does not change. We are still here to give praise to God; to give witness to the gospel – the actual good news – of Jesus Christ; to minister to “the least of these” in word and spirit; and to act as those who have been forgiven and redeemed by the love of Christ, and to show to the world that love, no matter what race or gender or nationality or orientation or political party or whatever they may be. That is what it means to be a follower of Christ, and followers of Christ are more desperately needed right now than perhaps we have even realized.
The results of an election do not change our call. They may, however, challenge us to wake up to it and to the world’s desperate hurting need for us to live up to it. We may find that our job really is to be a community that is so knit together in the Spirit, like those early Christ-followers of Acts, that the love of God cannot help but be seen and felt by any who come near us, and then to welcome and care for and suffer with those who are in the most desperate need of that love.
Fear is out there. There are millions in this country who now perceive themselves to be in danger in a way most of us don’t ever know. Do we get defensive and draw back? Or do we open the doors, go out and sit with them, and listen? Do we love? If there is any question we need to answer now as a church, that is it. Who do we choose to be? Do we choose to be the body of Christ to them? Do we choose to show the love of Christ?
For the witness of the body of Christ, then and now, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#352 My Lord! What a Morning
#641 When In Our Music God is Glorified
#373 O Day of Peace
#435 There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy
#435 There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy
Left for a teacher in Gwinnett County, GA, after election day.