Saturday, April 14, 2012

Second Sunday of Easter

I remember the first time in my life when it struck me that Christianity, after all, might be a good thing.  I had been brought up in the Church, but as a young adult went my own way.  Looking, perhaps for a spirituality that was fresher and more connected with the experience of my generation.  Critical, of what I saw with the clear-eyed myopia of youth as the hypocrisy of organised religion.  Needing to make a few compromises and mistakes of my own.

And so in my mid twenties I found myself living in Brisbane with my wife and our twin sons, having become a little less idealistic and a little more attuned to the realities of having to make a living and look after a young family.  Across the road from us was a big house occupied by a group of young and middle aged people, including one young woman who was profoundly disabled.  They called themselves Catholic Workers, and their house was called the House of Freedom.  As we got to know them we found out a bit more about their lifestyle.  These people did more than share a house, they shared everything.  None of them had any money of their own, but everything that anyone earned was shared to pay for the expenses of the house and to support the ministry they had in their church.  Everyone's needs were met out of the money that all of them earned.  I'd like to say they were saintly, or selfless, but actually they were deeply ordinary.  Except for this.  They took the Gospel seriously, and they followed Jesus as though it mattered. 

Somebody once commented in my presence – I forget who, and I'm pretty sure it was meant to be a criticism – that Christianity was an early experiment in Communism.  Which failed.  Along the same lines, I do remember it was Mahatma Ghandi who remarked that he thought Christianity was a good idea – but that unfortunately nobody had ever tried it yet.  You get, of course, that I'm working my way around to talking about the first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles.

We get a good dose of the Acts of the Apostles every Easter, the six week season that begins with Easter Day, for a very good reason.  Not just because the Acts of the Apostles is what happens next, in the chronological sense – but because what happens next also flows out of the reality of the resurrection – empowered by the resurrection life of Jesus and also attesting simply and directly, to the reality of that life.  The first and obvious point is this – that the apostles are transformed men and women.  The bewildered and defeated disciples who deserted Jesus on the cross turn into the living proof of the resurrection as they begin to preach and perform miracles in the name of the risen Christ.  We see them setting about the fundamental task of discipleship, which is of course to imitate Jesus.  To live as Jesus lived, forgiving and experiencing forgiveness, loving wastefully, healing and restoring and tangibly changing the lives of others just as Jesus modelled. The proof of the resurrection is that the resurrection life of Jesus is visible in the transformed lives of those who claim to be his disciples.

In the chapter just before we came in on today's reading, the apostles have been arrested for preaching the resurrection of Jesus and healing in his name.  Incidentally, we often get hung up on the general miraculousness and implied supernaturalism of healing.  But it is precisely what, as Christians, we ourselves are called to do.  In Korean there is a word for the residue of brokenness or sadness, shame or alienation that all too often lingers after any major trauma or tragedy.  They call it han – bodies might be healed but spirits and minds lag behind, needing to be called back into health and community.  The work of healing, then, is not reserved either for medical professionals or for supernatural miracle workers, but is the work of ordinary men and women of sensitivity and compassion who heal broken spirits in precisely the same way as Jesus and the apostles did – by noticing those who are invisible, by touching, by including those who are excluded, and by being a tangible reminder of the forgiveness and love of God. 

Even though they have been thrown into jail the apostles keep healing and teaching, and the main point, perhaps, is this – that God's power and presence are best made known in both word and practice – both in what we say and in what we do, how we live.  Which means the work of proclaiming the Gospel is not a job reserved for professionals, either, but is the prerogative and purpose of every Christian.

And so where we come in today, Luke, who is generally recognised as the author of the Acts of the Apostles, provides a practical example of what resurrection living means in Christian community.  In fact he gives two examples, a positive example that we hear about in today's reading and a fairly grim negative example that the lectionary writers have decided not to scare us with.  The community is characterised by radical sharing, by a spirit of giving that means the needs of the most vulnerable members are met.  And the positive example of that is the two verses that tell how one man, Barnabas, sells his property and lays the proceeds at the feet of the apostles.  The negative example is the scary little story of Ananias and Sapphira who keep back what they own.  Maybe Luke's idea is to show that the ideal of radical sharing, even though it has become the hallmark of Christian community, is not yet fully put into practice. 

Metaphorically, perhaps, the story of Ananias and Sapphira could represent how a Christian community dies when its members, one by one or two by two, choose self over community rather than self in community.  The point, perhaps, is that the community of those who love and follow Christ only thrives when its members, individually and communally, choose to follow the way of love and self-sacrifice.  Otherwise it's just lip service.  If we live generously and boldly, the Gospel grows through us.  If we chose to live self-defensively, we collapse.

For those who haven't read, or don't remember the cheery little story of Ananias and Sapphira, when their selfishness is revealed they drop dead at the apostles' feet.  Certainly a bit extreme, and in the context of a sermon that, let's face it, is necessarily about stewardship, about how we behave with what we presume to call our own – is not quite the message any preacher would want to get across.  But we can take from it the point that in Christian community our lives are necessarily interconnected – we belong together, and if our life together is not marked by compassion and care then the community dies.

And the reason the example of radical sharing is chosen as an example of resurrection living?  Is because the resurrection is first foremost a relational or communal event.  Jesus does not resurrect himself for himself … God's work of re-creation is made visible in Jesus in order to empower Jesus' followers – us – to live in ways that transform death-dealing spiritual and material circumstances in the lives of the communities in which we live.  Resurrection, then, is a pebble thrown into a pond that gets its power and momentum from the fact that it travels in ever widening circles.  Not static, but viral, spreading throughout the ancient world with the speed and power of recognition – that this way of living is built into us, as men and women made in the image of a loving creator the way of radical self-giving is actually built into our DNA, we are made to live beyond ourselves and to share who we are with others.

Resurrection life means recognising that we are not, and cannot live, as isolated individuals answerable only to ourselves. It means recognising that the underlying template of human life connects us to one another and to all with whom we share our humanity.  And that rumours of resurrection – rumours of the abundance of life that is the essence of our humanity – aren't for hoarding or for storing but for sharing.

I don't believe for a moment that the ideal of Christian community that the Acts of the Apostles points to has ever been perfectly lived out – and clearly it was not perfectly lived out in the earliest Christian community.  I don't know how well it was lived out in the House of Freedom in the early 1980s, whether the lives of those who lived together in community were enriched or whether their ministry and service were particularly effective.  I don't have a recipe for how it should be lived out in the complex economy of the 21st century – but in a world where one third of the population has way more than they need while two thirds live lives marked by unmet need -  A world where over 20,000 children die every day from hunger and preventable illness – And a country and a local community in which children and adults are homeless every single night, in which too many children still go to school on an empty stomach – in such a world might there not still be a place for a resurrection community that sees self-giving as a fundamental and higher priority than self-preservation?

We live the resurrection when we choose to live in ways that bring life to others.  And the alternative to that, as a Christian community, is to die.   If we are not living expansively, oriented to the needs of others, then we are contracting and dying.  If as a parish we are not engaged with the needs of the community we live in, if as individual Christians we are not giving generously for the needs of others, then we begin to shrink into ourselves, which is the opposite of resurrection.

The stories from the Acts of the Apostles are not just of historical interest, they are designed to get us asking ourselves, how is the resurrection being proclaimed – through us? And through me?