Lectionary Readings for May 11, 2014. Acts 2:42-47, Ps 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10
Here is the story of the beginnings of the church. After Peter shared the story of Jesus, crucified and risen, many people wanted to know how to respond. "Repent and be baptized..." is the answer given in verse 38. Many people do this and the Acts story for this week is the "what next" part of the tale. The 'repenters' meet every day for study, fellowship, prayer, and eating together. They start seeing God's hand in everything. They sell possessions and give to anyone who had need. The love they freely show isn't targeted "evangelism", it's just Jesus followers being themselves, and this attracts others and the church grows naturally.
The response to Jesus' story is to form a community of sharing. The people meet in the temple, and in their houses. They are reportedly in favour with everyone, not just the baptized in-crowd.
It's an idyllic picture, conjuring up all the good parts of community, of sharing, and the excitement of starting something new. It's great to enjoy the 'honeymoon' of idealism here at the start of the church, but it's hard to read this and not be cynical, searching for problems, knowing that they will come, finding reasons to say we can't do things the way this first church did. What will happen when people take advantage of the system? Who decides where the 'common purse" gets used? What about when people quarrel? Did these people think Jesus' return was going to happen in their lifetimes? Why do I easily relegate this granola-hippy-communal picture into the category of impractical and undoable?
Of course this "idyllic" community is going to face challenges. I read somewhere that "persons are smart, people are stupid" and there is something to that. Where ever a group of people have to work together, whether in families, or organizations, there will be problems to work through, dumb decisions, betrayals, hurtful actions. I wonder, however, if my immediate leap to cynicism is a bit of a cop-out, a way to justify/remain comfortable with life in an imperfect church. I wonder if I'm looking for excuses to keep all my stuff to myself. Do I really believe this picture of happy sharing in community is so unrealistic that I make an excuse for myself to not bother with striving for improvement?
On the less cynical side, it is in the church community that I have experienced glimpses of this ideal community. When someone connected to the church needs help, there are people who reach out. Many members of the church give generously to support a great variety of charities (fitting into the category of helping all who have need...). Many members give time and caring to each other, and reach out in their home communities too. I think we often don't realize how remarkable, how counter-cultural, this really is! Sometimes we are so busy looking for problems and being cynical that we make ourselves overly near-sighted and critical.
For myself, reading this passage today, I want to set aside the inner critic and celebrate the bits of the ideal I do see in the church. The caring questions, the knowledge that people are praying for each other, the giving that happens when a need is expressed, the casseroles that arrive for someone who needs help, the real joy and grief shared between people who are not related biologically, but are family through the church, the voluntary giving of time and skills to better the whole community. These things are so much a part of who we are as Jesus followers. We certainly aren't perfect, but we do get little tastes of what is possible. Instead of being cynical about today's story, I'd like to view it as an ideal to work towards. We likely won't ever achieve it entirely, but every little bit counts.