The early chapters of Acts include several important summaries of the community’s life and mission in Jerusalem. While many would say that the primary purpose of the Book of Acts is evangelistic mission to those who are not part of the faith community, the primary purpose of these summaries was probably more focused on nurturing the Christian community into being the Christian community. Here, believers who share a common geographical address should also share a common religious life, including teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. “Fellowship” (koinonia) is used only here in Acts, but Paul used it repeatedly as an important part of the community.
Commonality suggests a transforming presence of the Spirit of God. The phrase “all things in common” implies friendship, which means that “fellowship” is more than just being similar to each other; it means having a deep and abiding regard for one another’s spiritual and physical well-being. The religious practices laid out here bring about a steady and lasting obedience to God through the faith community. And the most distinctive act of the community is the sharing of goods. The assumption was that in order to achieve lasting unity, no inequality can exist.
There is some speculation that this portrayal may have been idealized a bit. Surely the first century believers had similar lapses in obedience as we do. The way of life depicted here would be positively awe-inspiring. Maybe, though, that’s the whole point. Maybe this is not an historical account at all but a goal to which we aspire. They had, in fact, probably as many disagreements and conflicts in their church as we do. They were real human beings trying to make their way through this journey of faith. And they were positively awed by what they had been shown. Maybe what is missing is a little awe in our lives—even a little awe at what we could become.
Our story doesn’t have to say that we were perfect. We already know we aren’t. But someday, someone will tell someone else who needs to hear it, that [our church] strove mightily to live out the gospel. There will be stories about different people and the things that happened to them – not just the pastors but the many people who are this church and who work faithfully to live out the gospel message of love, justice, mercy and peace. The story will be about the people who started this church, and the way it reached out to the surrounding community from its earliest days. The story will tell about the openness of this church throughout its history, expressed even in the architecture and art and capabilities of this building. The story will be about the people who kept this church open through lean years, faithfully tending the fire of its mission and vision until its renewed growth and vigor in the later years of the twentieth century. The story will be about the children who came through these doors, hungry to hear good news in a hostile and dangerous world. The story will be about a courageous decision to become an Open and Affirming congregation, and a steadfast faithfulness to living out that commitment in every way possible. The story will be about struggles against the effects of economic injustice, racism, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, and greed.
It will be a story about a commitment to inclusivity, diversity, and hospitality. And if the world truly does survive another 40,000 years, the story will include efforts to tend this good earth more lovingly and responsibly than we have in the past. Thousands of years from now, the story will say that we prayed together, grieved together, worked together, celebrated together, learned together, comforted and challenged one another, shared what we had, and gathered together every chance we could to eat – to break bread in remembrance of Jesus, to recognize the risen Christ here in our midst. (From a Sermon by Kathryn Matthews Huey, available at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/may-15-2011-fourth-sunday.html, accessed 11 May 2011.)
- What is your response to this passage?
- How does that relate to our world today?
- What of these practices do you think are the most difficult for us today?
- What does awe have to do with faith?
- How do you think our faith community would be described?
NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Peter 2:19-25
This passage from 1 Peter begins an excursus on living honorably in the household, which fits with our Acts reading for this week. The concern with the Christian’s “right conduct” before God reminds us of two things: (1) The eschatological hope that Christians’ behavior would convince unbelievers of the rightness of their cause and (2) The reminder that all Christian submission is undertaken not for the sake of the authorities, but for the sake of God.
The phrase translated as “it is a credit” is often translated as “grace” (or charis), although rather than it being the rich meaning that we find in Paul’s writings, it’s more a sense of it being “added to one’s account.” So, suffering for the sake of righteousness represents a credit with God. In this concern, then, for the approval of God, the sense of God’s immediate presence (the consciousness of God) and God’s final judgment (the visitation of God) sort of come together. There is also a reminder here that the status of Christian is not a decision but a response to a calling. They have been called to be who they are, written into a story by God.
Keep in mind that this is written in a time when it was not expected that you were Christian. There was no talk of this claim that they were living in a “Christian nation”. In fact, that whole idea would have been laughable at best and downright illegal and blasphemous at the worst. Suffering for one’s faith was an everyday occurrence.
Suffering for what is right, suffering for one’s faith is not about “proving” righteousness. And I don’t believe in a God who “only gives you what you can handle.” I don’t think God hands out suffering. Suffering just happens. Life happens. But God is there with us, sometimes pushing, sometimes pulling, and sometimes scooping us up when we cannot stand alone. In that we trust. Maybe suffering has more to do with trust than with anything else.
- How does this passage speak to you?
- What, for you, does this mean to be called by God to be Christian?
- What meaning does this hold for your life, personally?
- What would it mean to you to suffer for your faith?
- What does trust have to do with faith?
GOSPEL: John 10: 1-10
The image of Jesus as the good shepherd is a familiar one to us. If we read this passage with just this image, we tend to get this image of God as someone that we should follow or emulate. If, however, we read it in conjunction with the image of the gate, we see Jesus as the Way to life, the Way toward God. Jesus is revealed through the relationship with the community and the identity of the community is then linked with the image and identity of Jesus. The passage indicates that the shepherd, Jesus (God) knows each of us by name. The “thief” or stranger warns us of dangers in our times, dangers that pulls us away from that identity with Jesus. (Keep in mind that sheep will not follow a strange voice.)
Jesus was anything but “pro-status quo”. So think what that says about how we follow. The pasture is the metaphor for life—abundant life with God. The abundant life, for John, is not one born out of fear but out of love.
But…why sheep? Most people agree that they’re not the smartest animals in the farmhouse. After all, all they do is stay connected to their flock and follow their master around. Hmmm…so, why sheep? Well, you see, sheep know who they are and to whom they belong. They do not wander off from the path down which the shepherd is leading them. Sheep know how to listen for their master’s voice. And, in turn, the shepherd knows each sheep by name.
Jesus was an incredible storyteller. In this relatively few verses, he both reveals to us the essence of his own being as well as the relationship that each of us is called to have with God. Jesus is the good shepherd, the one who walks as we walk and leads us to God. But he also reveals himself as the actual gate, the divine. Both shepherd and gate, both human and divine. That is the essence of Christ. And at the end of this passage, Jesus dispenses with all of the metaphors of sheep and gates and shepherds and tells us once again who he is—the one that lays down his life for us and picks it up again. Jesus is the good shepherd leading us to the divine and the God that calls each of us by name if we will only listen. Because it’s who we are and it is who we are meant to be.
There is a story of a famous actor who was invited to a function where he was asked to recite for the pleasure of the guests. Having recited a few common verses, he asked if there was anything in particular they wanted to hear. After a moment or two, an older man asked to hear Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd”. The actor paused for a moment and then said, “I will, but with one condition—that you will recite it also, after I have finished.”
The man was taken by surprise. “I’m hardly a public speaker but, if you wish, I shall recite it too.”
The actor began quite impressively. His voice was trained and his intonation was perfect. The audience was spellbound and when he finished, there was great applause from the guests. Now it was the old man’s turn to recite the same psalm. His voice was not remarkable, his tone was not faultless, but when he finished, there was not a dry eye in the room.
The actor rose and his voice quavered as he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I reached your eyes and your ears; he has reached your hearts. The difference is this: I know the Psalm but he knows the Shepherd. (Charles Arcodio, in Stories for Sharing, (1991), p. 71)
In other words, following Christ is not about learning the right words, or doing the right things, or meeting some set of rules or expectations on which you check off at least 80% or so to pass. Following Christ is about becoming, about knowing, about entering a relationship with God and God’s people. It is about being who God envisions you to be.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What image of Jesus or of God does this bring about for you?
- What does that mean for you as part of the faith community?
- What gets in the way of our following Christ?
- What is the most difficult thing about it?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
An earthly kingdom cannot exist without inequality of persons. Some must be free, some serfs, some rulers, some subjects. (Martin Luther)
Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand it and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters. (Scott Peck)
God is closer to me than I am to myself. (Meister Eckhart)
Close by praying with Psalm 23 (KJV—Grandmother said that you can’t read this Psalm from any other translation!)
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.