25 May 2014

The Spirit of Truth & Love

John 14: 15-21

Sixth Sunday of Easter/ 25th May 2014

More than eight hundred years ago there was man named Joachim de Fiori. He was born in Italy around 1135 and died there, in Calabria, in 1202.  Joachim was a Cistercian abbot, theologian, and mystic. Some of his writings were condemned as heretical.  Joachim himself was never declared a heretic.  In Dante’s (c.1265-1321) Divine Comedy, Joachim is placed firmly in paradise–not in hell or purgatory, but in paradise.  His day of veneration each year is May 29, so this Thursday.  Joachim was a controversial figure. Dante considered him a prophet, although Joachim never claimed that role.  Joachim was imaginative, and as a mystic he had a particular vision that attracted some and threatened others.  He was a millenarian—that is, someone who believed that the one thousand year reign of Christ promised in Revelation (20:6) would be realized, literally, historically.[1]  It was only a matter of time. 

            What did Joachim see?  He saw history divided up into three ages, modeled after each person of the Trinity.  First was the Age of the Father: this was the Old Testament era, a time of judges and rules and obedience to the law of God. Then came the Age of the Son: this was the New Testament era and the generations that followed Christ, the period that witnessed the emergence and growth of the Church.  Joachim believed the Age of the Son was coming to an end in his day. The year 1260 would mark the arrival of the new and last era, which he called the Age of the Holy Spirit. This would be a time when people would have direct contact with God through the Holy Spirit.  It would be an age known for universal love, the kind that flowed from the presence of Christ, but—and this is critical—a Christ transcendent to the letter of a text, beyond scripture. And the institutional Church would be replaced by something else. In the Age of the Holy Spirit, “there would be no more need for the hierarchy of the Church, for [everyone] would be contemplatives” or mystics.[2]  People would know the freedom of Christ first-hand, individually, not through the mediation of the Church. The meaning of the gospel would be experienced within community, but not mediated by an institution. In the Age of the Holy Spirit the Church would become unnecessary.  Or so Joachim imagined.  One can see why the Church considered his ideas heretical.

            We need to remember, though, in every heresy there’s always some element of the truth.  The novelist Graham Greene (1904-1991) once said, “Heresy is another word for freedom of thought.” Another approach is to think of heresy this way: a partial truth mistaken for the whole truth. This means there’s still an element of truth contained in the heresy. Sometimes that hidden truth needs to be brought out into the light to be seen in another time—because we need it.

            Perhaps the partial truth that needs to be given more space in our “orthodoxy” is Joachim’s vision for the work of the Holy Spirit.  It has some resonance with what we find here in the Fourth Gospel, in Jesus’ teachings on the Holy Spirit.  Here in these verses of John 14 we hear that after Jesus leaves he will send someone to us, an Advocate—the Paracletos—literally, someone who will stand alongside us and walk with us. 

            Jesus tells us the Advocate will be among us, around us, but the Advocate, the Spirit, will also be at work within us. The Spirit will be both among us, but, also, significantly, at work within us.  In John’s Gospel the Holy Spirit extends and embodies the presence of the crucified-risen Christ.  However, in Acts, we have a different description; we find Luke’s account of the Holy Spirit arriving in tongues of flame on Pentecost in Jerusalem, after Jesus’ ascension (Acts 2:1-47).  In John’s Gospel, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit during his ministry, as we see here (John 14), and then after his resurrection, meeting with the disciples on Easter, we’re told that Jesus “breathed” the Holy Spirit into them (John 20:22).  In Acts, we see the Spirit at work in the Church, forming, shaping the Church.  In John, the Spirit has a communal dimension to her, but it’s also far more individual, although never individualistic. The Spirit rests around and in the disciple of Christ, the individual disciple who worships and serves in community. 

            This Spirit will abide with us and among us, but also within us. Jesus is talking to his disciples here, in community, yes, but he’s talking to them individually and personally.  So, yes, the Spirit is evident in the community, but Jesus also wants us to see that he will come and live within us, within our lives, within our spirits, deep in the core of our psyches.  The Holy Spirit comes alongside us and leads us in the way we should go. The Holy Spirit comes alongside us and leads into the truth—not dogmatic truth, not theological propositions, not even beliefs, but the unfolding of knowledge, what we discover in and through our relationship with Christ, through the Spirit.[3] The Spirit leads us into the truth about who Jesus is, the truth of who God is, the truth about the world, truth about who we are within the world, within God. Through the relationship with God in Christ over time we discover more and more the truth of God’s grace and love.

            Whatever we discover in the relationship, the source, the content, the yield will all be rooted and grounded in love.  Love the source; love the content; love the yield. Actually, one way to know that the Spirit is moving in our lives is our growing capacity to love and to receive love.

            Love and truth then come together here in the work of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes alongside us and leads us in the way of love.  If we love the Lord, we will keep his commandments to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Mark 12: 30-31).  And we do not try to love the Lord on our own, the Spirit comes along side us and enters into our lives and frees us to love.  The Spirit is given to help us to love as Jesus loved.  The love that Jesus offered God is possible within us because we have an Advocate who helps us.  The experience of love that Jesus felt from God is possible for us because the Advocate will create the space for the love to be experienced.  Through the work of the Holy Spirit we discover, more and more, that Jesus is in the Father, and the Father is in him, and we are in Jesus and Jesus is in us.  Can you sense how relational this is?

            The Spirit leads us into truth, in and through love.  In and through the Spirit’s love we are led into truth. The Advocate, working on our behalf, is tirelessly calling, inviting, and leading us into a relationship that leads us increasingly closer to the source of Life.  This is, in fact, one way we can view Jesus’ entire ministry.  Even here in the closing chapters of John, just before the crucifixion, Jesus wants his disciples to understand that this has always been God’s intention from the beginning of time: that we come to know that we were created to be in relationship with God, to know that our existence matters—yours and mine—and that we come to know the inherent worth of our existence in and through that relationship.  In Jesus, Immanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1: 23), God took on flesh to dwell among us (John 1:14)—not just historically, in space-time a long time ago, but also experientially, psychologically, here and now, in my space and in yours, in my time and yours, in my life and in yours, in the depths of my soul and in yours. 

            In the long history of Christianity those who have known this best are the mystics. Unfortunately, the Church has often viewed the mystics with suspicion, especially Protestants.  “Mystic” is a bad word for some Reformed theologians.  That was my impression coming out of Princeton Seminary. To be honest, my own views of mysticism have changed over the last ten years.  I was initially doubtful, but not now.  I was very surprised several weeks ago when a Methodist colleague said to me, “I kind of think of you as a mystic.”  I was startled by that remark.  It was also slightly alarming.  Me? Mr. Reformed pastor-theologian? I’m not sure what she meant by that. I don’t see myself as a mystic.  I certainly don’t pray like a mystic, but aspire to. 

            I do feel, strongly, however, that contemporary Christianity has a lot to gain from the rich and deep vision of the mystics in the Church, both the orthodox and the heretics.  Why?  Because what they point to, what they offer us is this extraordinary claim: it is possible to experience the Holy, both among us and most certainly within us.  They want us to know that the Holy Spirit is available to us; the Spirit of Christ has come and is coming alongside us to lead our lives into the very life of God!  Isn’t this what Jesus said?

            The word Julian of Norwich often used to describe this experience of being drawn into God was: oneing.  Julian, born in 1342 and died in 1416, an English mystic, lived in solitude for many years; she was an anchoress. In 1373, at the age of 30, seriously ill and close to death, she was given a series of “showings” or revelations, which ended when she was fully healed. These were later written down in what might be the earliest surviving book in the English language written by a woman, Revelations of Divine Love.[4]

            What was revealed to her? The power and presence and reality of God’s love.  It was the experience of a love that was calling her, leading her, deeper and deeper into a profound intimacy with God.  It was an experience that released a longing in her, drawing her toward God.  She realized, “It is by our longing that we will be liberated.” It is our longing, our desire for God—to be close to the Holy—that will ultimately lead us to the One we’ve been looking for and who has been looking for us, forever.  “Through our yearning,” she discovered, “our yearning for oneing we shall come to be one.”  One with God; one with Jesus. One. In such a moment, Jesus tells us, through the help of the Spirit, we will know Jesus participates in the life of God, and that we are in Jesus, and that Jesus is in us, which means, then, that we, too, are in God.  That’s what the Spirit does.  That’s what the Spirit is doing, wants to do: draw us deeper into intimacy with God. It’s the goal of history. As a result Julian of Norwich could affirm, “And all shall be well. And all manner of thing shall be well.”

            Some have argued, such as Jungian analyst and contemporary mystic of sorts, Helen Luke, that maybe Joachim was right all along; he was just off by about 800 years.  Perhaps we are seeing signs now of something new emerging within Christianity.[5]  I don’t believe the Church will become unnecessary, there’s no biblical warrant for that.  (And she’s not claiming such.)  What is true is that the nature of the church, how the church sees itself, understands its ministry, is changing and needs to change.  Phyllis Tickle suggests that every 500 years the Church clears out its attic and has a giant rummage sale where we get rid of the things that we don’t use and no longer need, in order to lighten our burden so that we can move toward the next thing the Spirit is leading us toward.  Every 1000 years the Church almost reinvents itself.  Five hundred years ago the Church weathered the Reformation.  Today, we are living through one of these once-in-a-thousand-year moments, she suggests.  Something new is emerging.[6] And we can see it in the decline of church membership and worship attendance in Europe and the United States over the last forty years. 

            People aren’t looking for religious institutions and church hierarchies to mediate the presence of God. People don’t want the faith of the Church. People want an experience; people are hungry for an experience of the Holy.  People still yearn for the voice of the Spirit, for the love and truth that Christ reveals.  We are actually living through one of the greatest upheavals in the history of Christianity as we rediscover the purpose of the Church, as we rediscover the Lord of the Church, as we rediscover the power and presence of the Spirit, our Advocate, sent to help us to love.  Perhaps we are slowly emerging into a new age of the Spirit.  I hope so.  Because it’s going to take the power and presence, the love and truth and grace of the Spirit—in community, but more important within us—to save Christianity and the Church.  

            Perhaps, then, the ancient prayer, “Come, Holy Spirit,” is needed now more than ever. Let this be our prayer: Come, Holy Spirit. Come!

[1] On Joachim’s theological view of history see Karl Löwith, Meaning in History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 145ff.
[2] Helen M. Luke, Kaleidoscope: The Way of Woman and Other Essays (Morning Light Press, 2004), 176.
[3] Gary D. Badcock, Light of Truth & Fire of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 33-34.
[4] The full text of Revelations of Divine Love may be found here: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/julian/revelations.
[5] Luke, 178.
[6] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why (Baker Books, 2012).

18 May 2014

Even Greater Works

John 14:1-14

Fifth Sunday in Easter/ 18th May 2014

There was a time when I thought that all God wanted from me was my belief.  Belief is what mattered, I thought.  I went to Sunday School.  My mother taught Sunday School for almost forty years; she was my teacher twice (not because I had to repeat a grade).  I went to Sunday School every week. I had perfect attendance every year, from kindergarten through 9th grade when I was confirmed—and I have the attendance awards to prove it. Believing in God was important; I came to sense that that’s what God wants from us.  When I was in high school I read a lot of religious literature, which, looking back upon it now was theologically very conservative.  I’m not sure how I came across such texts.  That was not the theological bent of my family or of my church.  Yet, verses such as Acts 16:31 were seared into my brain, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household” (NIV).  Or, there was this one from Romans 10:9, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (NIV).  If you want to be saved, then you have to believe, I assumed.  I was worried about being lost. Belief is the key to the door that leads to everlasting life, which meant not believing or doubting would move me into very dangerous territory.  Or so I thought.

            It was later, in college and in seminary, that I realized two things: first, the value of doubt and, second, the meaning of God’s grace. I came to know what grace felt like. It’s then that I discovered that grace comes first—it always comes first—followed by belief.  Belief matters, theological ideas matter, but belief unfettered by grace, belief apart from grace, is cheap and, worse, dangerous.  Belief matters, but what matters more is our relationship with the object of our belief, the content of belief, that is, our relationship with God through Christ in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. That relationship, itself, is grace.  Gradually, I came to see:  God doesn’t want my belief. God wants me.

So, what causes this confusion?  Particular readings of John’s gospel get us into this mess; they tend to confuse us. It’s not John’s fault. It has to do with the way we read him. We just heard verses such as John 14:1, “Believe in God, believe also in me.”  Then there is the conversation between Philip and Jesus.  “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”  Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time,…and you still do not know me?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”  “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.” (John 4:8-11)  Jesus is helping both Philip and Thomas understand the unity between Jesus and his Father, with God.  Jesus is saying in other words: If this seems odd or foreign to you, Philip and Thomas, then look at what I’ve been able to do because the Father is at work in me.

            It might sound like Jesus is being harsh here, even shaming them.  There is a gentle rebuke here, but we have to hear the rebuke within the context of Jesus’ deep friendship with them, within his commitment to them, within the extraordinary trust and confidence he has in them.  Jesus isn’t some revivalist preacher here demanding Philip and Thomas to make a decision then and there: belief or unbelief.  Their conversation is situated within the context of what they’ve already come to know about him. 

            Jesus here is a teacher, who wants his students to deepen what they already know; he’s sharing this knowledge with them, this wisdom about who he is because Jesus trusts them.  In fact, he has extraordinary confidence in them.  What Jesus wants them to realize is that through him they are being drawn deeper and deeper into a relationship with the Lord of the Universe, the Source of all goodness and grace, the Fount of love and life.  It’s a relationship that the Lord of the Universe, the Source of all goodness and grace, the Fount of love and life seeks to have with you and me.  How do we know this? Because it’s the same relationship that Jesus demonstrated to us in his relationship with his Father.  Jesus’ disciples—you and me—have been and are being invited to live, to dwell in that same kind of relationship, an intimacy with the God.

            This is an extraordinary claim here—radical, life-changing in its implications for us. It must have been staggering for the disciples to hear.  There’s nothing like this in Judaism.  “I am in the Father,” Jesus said, “and the Father is in me” (John 14:10).  This is a mutual indwelling, one participating in the life of the other.  Life flowing from the Father to the Son; life flowing from the Son to the Father.  The Father dwelling in Jesus works through him. Nothing Jesus says he says on his own.  Nothing Jesus does he does on his own. It’s all the result of God working through him.  Jesus certainly had more than belief in God.  He trusted in God.  He rested in the strength of the relationship. He rested in God’s faithfulness and love for him.  And in the strength of that relationship, that mutual exchange—God trusting Jesus; Jesus trusting God—Jesus was empowered to act, to serve, to save. 

            Therefore, when we hear the word “believe” here (and throughout John’s Gospel), we should understand it to mean something more like trust.  When we trust in what Jesus has shown us with his life we discover that, like him, we are being drawn into a deep, intimate relationship with God. 

God doesn’t want your belief. God wants you. That is what Jesus came to show. This is what God desires for all people.  It’s what God desired for humanity since the dawn of time.  The Christian life is about more than saying, “I believe in God,” or “I believe Jesus was the Son of God.”  The Christian life is about more than belief.  It’s an experience.  As I came to know—as I continue to fathom the unfathomable—God is in me and I am in God.  That’s what Jesus is suggesting to Philip and Thomas.  God is in you and you are in God.

            Why does this matter? Why is this so important?  Because, as Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me”—that is, the one who trusts in me, rests in me, welcomes me, participates in me—“will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12).  Now, that’s a very bold claim. 

            How can anyone do greater works than Jesus? Really? How can Jesus make such a claim?  Jesus could make such a claim because he knew the potential power of human beings when their lives are bound to God, rooted in that relationship with God, like Jesus, and when the Life of God pours through them.  What Jesus knew, we can and do know.   When we are rooted in that relationship, when we trust that God is working through us, we will witness the further unfolding of God’s love incarnating itself in the world, in the church, in you and me. God still desires the incarnation of divine love in the world.

            Now, that’s not something that I learned in Sunday School. I can remember thinking that God wanted me to believe in something that took place in the past and that by believing that something took place a long time ago somehow made God happy, which meant heaven for me—or something like that.  The orientation was looking back.  It took me a long time to reorient myself from focusing on the past to the present, becoming attentive to the ongoing work of God in the world, and then looking forward, to the “new thing” God would reveal in the future. 

            Right here in John 14 you can hear the future orientation of this text.  Jesus isn’t calling disciples to look back to a golden age, but to look forward to a new age, to the new thing God was doing in the world in Jesus, but also beyond Jesus, through Jesus into the future.  The vision Jesus offers his disciples is that change is inevitable, change is good, and that God is still at work in us and through us, that God is actually trying to take us somewhere, to move us, so we better get used to change.[1]  The story of God’s love is still being told.  It’s as if this is what Jesus discovered—the story of God’s love is still unfolding—this is what he knew and now he wants the rest of us to know this too, to know this experience first-hand. 

And so Jesus says in order for us to discover this for ourselves he has to leave us, he has to go away—although not completely, he promised never to leave us orphaned (John 14:18)—like a good parent, Jesus has to step back, step away in order for us to step up and grow up, to discover for ourselves what God is trying to accomplish through us.  As Jesus later says to his disciples, in John 16, “…it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).

            This week I was reading a review of a book about to be released in two weeks, the first novel written by Jöel Dicker, called The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (Penguin). It’s being being hailed as the great American crime novel—although it was written in French.  It’s about a crime case in a small New Hampshire town.  It was released in France in 2012 and immediately became a best seller, and then it was released in Spain and Italy in 2013 (supplanting Dan Brown).  Three years ago, Jöel Dicker, a Geneva Law School graduate, was taking lunch orders from Swiss parliament members and putting off the bar exam.  The 28-year-old said, “I didn’t have the holy fire for law.” So he quit his job and started to write.  Speaking on the change of direction in his life, he said,  “I like it when the end is the beginning of something else.” And I immediately thought of Jesus’ words to Philip and Thomas.  Something has to come to an end for something else to emerge.  Something has to die in order for new life to follow. And then Dicker offered these words, “A good story is never-ending.” 

          He’s right.  That’s what makes it good. When we finish reading a good story, we want to start reading it all over again. The same is true for what we find in the Bible.  The story isn’t over—it’s still unfolding.

            The story of God’s love for the world is never-ending.  And Jesus entrusts you and me with the story: to not only tell the story, but also live the story, embody it, live the story forward.  Jesus trusts us and entrusts us with this work.

            We don’t do all this on our own, relying upon our own strength, wisdom, or knowledge.  It’s not about us, but about what God is doing through us. And how do we know about these “greater works”?  How do we do all of this?  Jesus offers the way here too.  Prayer.  “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (John 14:13-14).  This is not prayer as wish fulfillment. God is not a genie who waits to grant us three wishes. Prayer is not a tool to get God to do whatever we want. That’s childish and selfish.  Instead, this is prayer in which we discover and rediscover who God is, where we understand our true relationship to God, in God, and then ask God to help us to do things, new things, new works, that will live the story forward and honor God. We then desire after these things, even greater works, whatever will give glory and honor to God.  That’s how we live the story forward.  That’s our calling.

What is that greater work in your life?

What is that greater work for the Church today?

What is the greater work for this people of God?

Let’s together be still and listen and open ourselves to the Spirit.  Let us pray….

[Several minutes of silent prayer followed here during worship.]

Through the presence of the Holy Spirit, in the power of the Risen Christ, to the glory and honor of God. Amen.

[1] Cf. the quote from the bulletin cover:  “Change is not what we expect from religious people.  They tend to love the past more than the present or the future.” Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass, 2011), 11.

11 May 2014

Glad and Generous Hearts

Acts 2: 41-47

Fourth Sunday in Easter/ 11th May 2014

Is Luke, the author of Acts, telling the truth? Is this what the early church was like?  It sounds like the perfect church, doesn’t it? A congregation devoted to the teaching of its pastors, attentive to every word, remembering the point of every sermon ever preached.  A congregation filled with awe as it looks upon a leadership—elders, deacons, trustees—that regularly performs “wonders and signs” (Acts 2:43).  A community where people share a common faith and a common life together, where true fellowship was a common occurrence, daily, weekly.  A church that pools its resources, selling property and possessions and goods and then sharing them freely, “as any has need” (Acts 2: 45). A church without budget problems and deficits. A church without conflict. A church with a clear vision and mission.  A church that eats together regularly, at worship and at home.  Praising God and seeking the common good of all people.  A church so amazing that it grows exponentially on a daily basis, continually growing and growing, forever and ever. Amen!

            I’ve never seen such a church.

            Catonsville Presbyterian Church might be an amazing congregation—and it is—but it’s not perfect. We might have a remarkable staff and gifted leadership—and we do—but it’s not anything close to what Luke describes here in Acts.  We’ve increased our giving levels as a church by discovering what faithful stewardship is all about, we’re doing great things through mission and advocacy, but we still have a way to go. It’s nothing like what we see in Acts 2. Membership rolls increasing daily?  Performing wonders and signs? A congregation filled with awe, all the time, 24/7?

            Is that what the early church was like?  Did such a church ever exist? At some level, we’re all jaded and skeptical. Maybe Luke isn't telling us what it was like. It seems too good to be true.

            Some think he was telling the truth, that this is what the early church was like, “back in the day,” in the Golden Age of the church.  Maybe.

Christians are often seduced by nostalgia, thinking that an earlier time is always better.  This appears to be the default mode of psyches shaped by the Garden-Fall narrative of the Bible.  The former days are often viewed as the better days. It’s all downhill from there. 

Perhaps those were the “glory days” of the Church. I don’t know. What I do know is that this way of thinking, that the past was better, is not always helpful because it sets us up for failure (and it might be false). In always comparing the present time with former times, somehow this time never seems to measure up.  So we become disappointed, depressed, discouraged about the state of the church and its future, worried about the state of the Presbyterian Church.  This way of thinking just isn't useful because it rarely fires our imaginations enough to respond to the present crisis and the opportunity of the moment.  Why do we keep looking back? We’re already east of Eden (Gen. 4:16), so why do we want to go back there?

            So, should we instead look forward?  Others see Acts 2 as an ideal, the perfect given so that we have something to strive for.  Some view Acts 2 as the goal, what the Church is supposed to look like; this is what we should be doing, working toward that time when all things will be held in common, when resources and gifts are shared, as any has need.  It’s obvious that what we have here is an ideal, because it's too good toe true.  It’s a vision. 

And as visions go, it’s not a bad one. Such a vision informed the social and economic reform movements of the nineteenth century, including the thought of Karl Marx (1818-1883).  Some forms of communism and socialism have their origin right here in Acts 2.[1] 

However, viewing Acts 2 as an ideal is equally unhelpful. An ideal always remains an ideal.  Always striving for it easily sets us up for failure and being disappointed by the real. It’s, then, easy for the church to become discouraged, because we don’t measure up to the ideal, that perfect church. It’s a waste of time and energy trying to get to utopia because it doesn't exist; utopia literally means “no place.”[2] It’s good to have goals and visions, but if they’re so unrealistic, so out of reach, in time we lose steam and we collapse or, worse, go to the other extreme, consigning ourselves to dystopia, reflected today in many novels, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006).

            What we find here in Acts 2 is not really nostalgia for the good ol’ days (although it might look that way), neither is it an ideal. It might sound like nostalgia because Luke is modeling his account on a particular form of Greek literature, a kind of “foundation story.”[3] A first-century reader of Acts, especially someone well educated, would have recognized this.  For example, Plato describes the early days of Athens this way: “none of its members possessed any private property, but they regarded all they had as the common property of all.”[4] Sound familiar? (See Acts 2:44-45). Because it was so in the past, it might be so again in a future ideal state.  

          But it’s important to know that having things in common was not an ideal within Rabbinic Judaism.  We know that at Qumran, the Essenes, a Jewish sect at the time of Jesus, did live in a community where possessions were held in common.[5]  Perhaps there’s a part of us that wants to keep this an ideal, then we’ll feel less guilty for not sharing what we do have. When on Friday Pope Francis called for the “legitimate redistribution of wealth” to the poor, he wasn't evoking an ideal, but preaching the Gospel.[6]

            Not nostalgia. Not an ideal. What is the church to do with a text like this?

Maybe it’s not about the church. Because we tend to think that Luke is describing what the early church looked like or might have looked like or could look like, it’s easy to assume that the focus here is on the church.  Yes, it has to do with the church.  The church matters, of course.  But as a surface reading of Acts will show, the protagonist of Luke’s story is not the church, but the Holy Spirit.  The one who makes everything happen, the character driving Luke’s narrative is not the church, but the Holy Spirit.  It’s the Holy Spirit who stands behind and beside the church, below and above and in the church, in the narrative, who causes everything to happen.  The first part of Acts 2 tells the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  Everything going on in the community that Luke describes, in the church, the ekklesia, in this association of people who have encountered the Spirit of the Risen Christ, is the result of the presence of God in their midst—within them and around them.

            Luke is not describing an ideal. He’s not saying this is what you should strive for.  He’s describing what happens when the Spirit of the Risen Christ shows up. He’s describing what happens when the Spirit is flowing through our lives.  You can see it most profoundly when people come together and form a community, an association, an ekklesia, made up of individuals who have been similarly moved by the Spirit and need to live a different way because of it.  We come together and are formed into a fellowship, a koinōnia —one of the most significant New Testament words, which describes what life is like in the ekklesia, in the church. Actually, I’m partial to the word; when I was at Princeton Seminary my friends called me Koinonia Kovacs. 

Koinōnia, fellowship, refers to what life looks like in the ekklesia.  In the koinōnia things are shared and held in common, where we mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15), where we are attentive to the needs of the people who share our lives with us (Romans 12:13).[7] We break bread and share our lives and learn to love one another—like Jesus.

            What Luke is describing here is not some kind of church program that farms out charity or takes a collection.  He’s not talking about the church as an institution—we have to stop thinking of the church as an institution (!).  He’s not talking about an organization.  What Luke is describing here—such as the sharing of possessions—is “a spontaneous outgrowth of the Spirit.”[8] It’s a natural, spontaneous response in people who are alive in the Spirit of God, in people who know that the Spirit of the Resurrected Christ is within us.

            And when this happens and every time it happens we know the grace of agalliasis.  Gladness. They broke bread and ate their food, they shared meals together, remembered the One who shared a meal with them, knowing the One who is always known to us in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:35)always, always (!) known in the breaking —and they broke bread, lived out their day-to-day ordinary lives, “with glad and generous hearts,” en agalliasis kai apheloteti kardiasAgalliasis means gladness, but gladness of a special kind. It describes the joy we find in the presence of the Lord. It’s used four other times, all in Luke’s Gospel.  It’s used more than 12 times in Greek version of the Psalms (Septuagint).  Apheloteti (from aphelotes) is used only here in the Bible and refers to simplicity, generosity.  When the Spirit moves our hearts we are changed. 

            When we’re close to the presence of the Lord there is gladness and joy in the church.  Here and now.  Not in some glorified past; not one day.  Here and now in the church.  But, remember, it’s not about the church.  It’s about you and me, individually and then together, in our experience of the Resurrected Lord—along with everyone else the Spirit adds to the koinōnia.  When the Spirit moves we find ourselves, naturally, becoming more and more generous—it’s one of the signs that the Spirit is at work within us when we become more generous—giving of ourselves in love, sharing our lives, giving, forgiving.  Being glad, being generous is not a program or an ethical ideal or a project or some goal that we wish to pursue in our lives.  It’s what happens, it's the result, it’s the outflow from an encounter with the Spirit.

Luke’s offers us here a description of what can happen (and does happen) when the Spirit breaks open the closed doors of our lives and enters into the places where we live, when the Spirit forms and transforms the center of our lives, the heart of our lives, transforms our hearts.  This is what is true.

When Christ’s love flows toward us and through us, we are changed. 

And then you’ll see your “wonders and signs” all around you. Then you’ll see what God’s love can do.

When this happens, I believe, we’ll look on, we’ll look at ourselves—with awe. And the world will look at us with awe.  Not because of us, but because of the Spirit at work in us. With awe.  Awe and gratitude—for the ongoing work of the Spirit in us, in the church, in the world.  Amen.

[1] See Rosemary Ruether, The Radical Kingdom: The Western Experience of Messianic Hope (New York: Paulist Press, 1970), especially chapter 11, “Christian-Marxist Dialogue,” 185ff.
[2]“Utopia” was first coined by Thomas More (1478-1535) for the title of his book Utopia (1516), describing a fictional island society in the Atlantic Ocean.
[3] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), 62.
[4] Plato, Critias, cited in Johnson, 62.
[5] Johnson, 62.
[7] On the dialectic between the koinonia and the ekklesia, see Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter and Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2001), 163ff.
[8] Johnson, 59.