In the Lord of the Rings – not movieland’s showy and scary version but the quieter and more poetic book on which it was based – the real Lord of the Rings – the story opens in the village of Bag End, in the Shire, that little corner of the world inhabited by furry-toed creatures called hobbits. The name itself – the Shire – sounds quaintly English, rural and parochial – perhaps Tolkien’s prejudices are showing here – but the Shire as we quickly discover is a haven of peace in a troubled and dangerous world. Though it’s far from perfect, the Shire is a place where hobbits have enough but not too much – where the greatest pleasure is derived from sharing food and drink and giving gifts – a place where friendship and loyalty are commonplace, where nature is greener and flowers brighter than anywhere else, a place where people sing just for the heck of it.
But we know it can’t last. We know that Middle Earth is in deep trouble, that ancient evil has been festering away and the simple folk of the Shire are living on borrowed time. The Shire is an anachronism – either it’s time is past, or its time hasn’t come yet – but we recognise it as a vision of how things ought to be.
Then, at the very end of the epic – the ancient evil has been defeated and the Ring of Power unmade – at the very end we swing back to the Shire and we see that the great wars that have rocked the world have also had to be fought there – we see some of the damage that has been done to the lives of simple hobbits – and we see things being restored, gardens replanted better than ever with the help of elvish magic, homes rebuilt and babies born – the beer brewed that year turns out to be the best vintage ever, the butter is creamier, the children have rosier cheeks. The Shire that has been fought for and re-built is the Shire that always should have been, the real Shire that the previous one was only a promise of. The Shire that was really only possible because of the love and sacrifice of Frodo the hobbit.
I guess the utopian vision of the early church that we get in the Acts of the Apostles doesn’t look quite like the Shire - though as in any good vision of the way things ought to be, food figures fairly prominently. It’s a vision of a community transformed by the Holy Spirit and the main characteristic is that everything is shared – not just people who come together because they happen to have the same beliefs and values but a community in which people see no difference at all between their own interests and those of their brothers and sisters – a community in which lives as well as things are literally shared. The focus is on the resources the community has, not on the problems they may have had in finding the resources - presumably believers still had the need to work – but both the contributions of individual believers and the distribution of resources emphasise the point that the basic characteristic of life in the Holy Spirit is not individualism but unity. It’s a vision of peace and gladness – the impression you get is of a peaceful daily rhythm of prayer and domestic life – nobody has died, nobody is sick or in trouble with creditors, nobody is arguing, the community is not being persecuted in any way – the first missionary enterprise of the church is successful and even idyllic. Luke, of course, may be exaggerating things just a little, but we get the point.
And the point is this – that this vision of the Shire is an echo of the way Jesus announces his mission right at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. Jesus uses a prophecy from Isaiah, and he says that his mission is good news for the poor, Jesus invokes the idea from Isaiah of the year of the Lord’s favour which reverses the fortunes of the lost and the least and the last. Luke’s Jesus consistently preaches and demonstrates a model of God’s kingdom in which forgiveness and restoration for God’s people is equated with radical reversal of the status quo – the signs of the kingdom are accountability and solidarity. But we have to wait until Luke’s sequel, in the Acts of the Apostles, to see it actually happening – because the utopian model of the kingdom that Luke’s Jesus promises is only possible on the other side of the empty tomb. Like the Shire, the kingdom Jesus promises exists as a possibility and as a promise – it can only grow into reality when people nurture it and believe in it and make sacrifices for it. If Luke’s version in today’s reading is a bit exaggerated, then it might be that we are still working on it.
Somebody suggested to me the other day that Luke’s description of the Christian community sounds more like what today we would call a sect, rather than a church. Sociologist Richard Holloway says that by definition, a church is about plurality – about including differences, where a sect is more about singularity – excluding differences. The perfect sect is a group in which everybody agrees – which might be a bit difficult to achieve with more than one member. Another difference is that a sect defines itself by contrast to the surrounding culture – it stands out and refuses to get assimilated – where a church tends to fit in all too easily. The danger for a sect is that things can get pretty weird – the danger for a church I think is not being weird enough.
So, what does Luke’s utopian vision mean for us? If it doesn’t quite work as a blueprint for what the Church today should look like, is this vision of the Church as a community of friends still relevant for us in our hyper-individualistic culture? Is sharing everything still possible for 21st century Australians who come together here on Sunday mornings from different backgrounds and different jobs? Well, perhaps not. I suspect it’s a work very much in progress. But the way I have seen the men and women and young people of this parish working together and laughing together over the last few months in the Op Shop and the garden and down the soak wells ... the willingness of volunteers to give their time and talent in worship and administration and the mundane tasks of caring for our buildings ... the outpouring of love we have seen around the simple celebrations of marriages and baptisms and blessings... the generosity of this parish in response to natural disaster and the regular giving of parish funds to mission and welfare – all this encourages me to believe that we have a shared vision of what we are called to be.
You see, Luke’s vision gives us two very important hints, that are just as relevant for us today as they were back then. The first is this – that it’s too hard to be a Christian by yourself. When it comes down to it, the way of love which Jesus teaches us is the only way to be open to the spiritual realities of the world we live in – the way of love which requires us to learn about discipline and self-sacrifice, to become less and less neurotic, less and less self-centred, to become quiet enough to listen to the small movements of our own hearts and sensitive enough to notice the hurts and the hopes of others – in other words acquiring the habits of repentance and forgiveness – the way of love is a path we can only travel in company. That is why the very first images of conversion in the New Testament are about community and radical sharing.
The second hint is this – that growth in this way of love is organic – contrary to images we might have of sudden ecstatic experiences and tongues of fire, the less flashy reality for those who wish to grow spiritually is that love needs to be nurtured, slowly, deliberately, and for a lifetime. There is no fast lane, no hyperlink to click for life in the spirit, instead, it’s the path of steady and lasting fidelity. The community we see in the book of Acts is one in which learning and teaching, praying together, discerning the common good, encouraging one another, sacrificing something for one another and sharing the intimate spaces of everyday life are recommended as the only sure-fire recipe for spiritual growth, the only sure-fire recipe for a Church that really wants to be a place where God’s kingdom can take root.
The vision of God’s kingdom that Jesus named at the beginning of his ministry, and that Luke describes as the ideal form of the Church probably isn’t a reality anywhere in the world. But then Jesus has a habit of claiming things about God’s kingdom that just aren’t happening in the world around us, and then challenging us to believe that they are possible. And it’s important for us to name the difference between the present reality of our life together, where we are as the Church and where we are called to be – because that gap is the space where transformation becomes possible if we dare to believe that Jesus is telling the truth – that gap is the creative space where – if we pay attention to one another and encourage one another and continue to build a vision together of what it means to be God’s people in this place – we will see for ourselves that God’s Holy Spirit is at work.