Friday, May 28, 2010

Having All Things in Common: The Essence of Christian Community

The book of Acts includes two summary passages that describe the character of the first century church (Acts 2:42-45; 4:32-37). In both references, Luke, the author of Acts, narrates that the early believers gathered for worship, prayer, fellowship, and the breaking of bread. Even in our churches today, these actions are familiar and normal to us, as these are still considered the central acts of worship of the gathered people of God.

But perhaps more striking to our ears are the statements in which Luke tells us that these believers “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” He goes on to say, “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.”

What might cause such radical generosity among these believers? For sure, it was the power of the Spirit that compelled them to share what had been their own with the needy of the community. Indeed, the indwelling Spirit transformed their understanding of property as that which is privately owned, to viewing private property as that which must be shared with others. Their sharing with others demonstrated that there was a reevaluation of worldly possessions in light of the new work that God was doing in Christ.

But was the relinquishing of private property simply a form of asceticism through which the believers renounced the things of this world to focus on the things of God? To some extent, we would have to say yes. However, the giving up of private property for the well being of others was not simply an expression of genuine generosity that both provided for the needs of others as well as liberated those who acted this way from the temporal things of this world. This action was also a major step, if not the major step toward the formation of the beloved community.

The giving up of one’s possessions for the good of others was more than a simple life void of the distractions of private property. It was something much greater; it was one of the primary characteristics of community living among the early believers. Indeed, without the giving up of possessions to share with others, true community among the believers would not have been realized.

Consequently, these earliest followers of Jesus instituted something radical for their world. For sure, there were other communities in the Hellenistic world which held common possessions, following the teachings of those like Aristotle, who taught that friends held things in common. And the community at Qumran, which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, lived this way. But Luke’s narration of these summary portraits of the early church informs us that what they were practicing was different from much of the world around them, and the significance of their common living was brought on by the gospel and the power of the Spirit.

Yet, while the actions of giving up private property in the new people of God may have been something radical, and remains so today, the reality is that these actions, according to Luke, were actually normative for Christian identity and community. Luke’s narration of their selling private possessions is not so much for the purpose of informing us of the ideal to which the church is to attain, though this reason is there. Rather, the practice of community sharing among the early believers was a fact of being the Jesus-following, sprit-empowered, people of God. It was who they were.

The portraits of the church in Acts, therefore, are not primarily models of unreachable ideals the church is to hopelessly pursue; though the church should continue to pursue authentic community through such acts. Instead, these narratives express that which was and is normative for the church to be the church. To act differently means to be less than what the church is to be.

Through the practice of sharing possessions, the believers were materially expressing something deeper that was essential to their being the community of Jesus. Simplicity and communal sharing of possessions had become the normative economy of the new people of God, and this practice opened the way for other normative practices that shaped the community.

Service became the normative model of social relationships, instead of holding power over the other. Inclusive welcoming of all, rather than exclusion, became the norm of community formation. And humility, not power, became the norm for living in peace. Once the right to claim private possessions was reevaluated in light of God’s new work to create and shape a new community, and once these symbols of status were removed through the guidance of the Spirit, service, inclusion, and humility further shaped and characterized that community.

Western Christianity, and especially our American brand of Christian religion, has privatized religion to the extent that we cannot legitimately call it Christian, at least, I think, from a biblical perspective. This privatization of Christianity is in direct opposition to the original call of Jesus, who, although calling individuals to follow him, called them to a social community in which they were formed by his character and the Spirit and in which they found new existence and identity.

The pictures of the early church in Acts portray what Jesus envisioned as normative for the community of faith; a community through which individual character formation takes place that shapes the broader collection of God’s people into a true community of sharing, service, inclusion, and humility.

The sharing of possessions among the early believers, according to these passages from Acts, was on the same level of importance as the preaching of the apostles, the breaking of bread, prayers, and the worship of God. But such sharing was not simply a renunciation of one’s worldly possessions. Nor was it merely a generous act to help those in need. While both of these are true and necessary, the larger purpose for relinquishing wealth and possessions was so that authentic community in Christ would become a reality.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Seeking God’s Will for Your Life: A Message for Graduates (And the Rest of Us)

I work at a university, coach a high school girls’ soccer team, and have three teenagers, one of whom will finish high school this month. From all of these contexts, I have witnessed both the joys of graduation, either from high school or from college, as well as the uncertainties young people face as they embark on the next chapter in their lives.

Many of those graduates that I have the privilege of knowing are Christian young people, who have an abiding trust in God that could teach more seasoned adults about how to face changes in our lives with hope and optimism. Most of them believe that God is guiding their lives, and they are heartily committed to following God’s direction.

While I cannot speak specifically about what God has in store for each one of these gifted, intelligent, and faithful graduates, I hope I can offer to them, and to the rest of us, at least something to hold on to as they enter a world that will often test their faith in God.

Understanding God’s will for our lives is tricky. Living God’s will is even more complicated. While we who are Christian rightly believe that our primary resource for knowing the will of God is the Bible, and while we are often told that reading the Bible can give us a clear understanding of what God wills for our individual lives, using the Bible as the primary source of knowing God’s will is very challenging.

For starters, we live in a world that is a long way away from the ancient world in which the Bible was written, and much of what we might understand from the Bible is frustrated by what we know about the world as opposed to what the inhabitants of the ancient era knew and didn’t know about the world.

But the problem is more than just simply the distance in time between the biblical world and our own lives; a time gap that is not easily bridged. The problem also comes in understanding what the Bible wants to say to us and which parts of the Bible might say these things more clearly.

Indeed, I would caution you to be careful in reading the Bible in order to make it say something to you, as if the Bible was written for you or for me. The Bible is not a self-help book, and the books that make up the collection we call the Bible were not primarily written for you or for me. They were written for ancient people whose history spans generations and whose world was quite different from our own. Therefore, we should not pretend that reading the Bible is easy.

In fact, biblical interpretation is often difficult and gut-wrenching work, if we are really seeking to be serious about what the text says, and if we are especially serious about learning what the text might say to us. Despite what we hear from some preachers and teachers of the Bible, the Bible is not always clear and not always correct for our context. And it is certainly not easy to follow in what it prescribes.

Moreover, we are also not helped in reading the Bible when we tend toward spiritualizing portions of the Bible just because we think that every part of scripture must mean something for us now. Many well meaning folks believe that every word from Genesis to Revelation has meaning for us, and many Bible study materials push this idea to the point of over-spiritualizing portions of scripture just to make them fit our lives. It is false to assume that every verse of the Bible applies to our lives, and we tread dangerously close to making the Bible something it is not when we treat it this way.

Do not take all of this as my advocating that you throw out the Bible as a source of truth, faith, and hope. I am not here to demolish your faith; I write these words to challenge you on how you think about your faith. Indeed, as I have stated, and as I try to practice in my own life, the Bible ought to be our primary source for how we understand God and how we live our lives in response to God. But I am saying that we can face many questions in life for which we may never find specific and crystal clear answers from these ancient texts, no matter how hard we try.

But all is not lost. Despite the struggles we have in finding specific answers to the questions we face in our world, questions unthinkable in the ancient world, I do think that both you and I can find God’s will for all of us in the central message of scripture. That central message is summed up in various ways, but two references are pertinent for how we live in this world as followers of Jesus.

From the prophet Micah (6:8) we read, “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” And, as recorded in the New Testament, Jesus stated that God’s law is summed up in this, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and everything that you are, and love your neighbor as you would love yourself.” These seem to me to be the most important creeds by which to live for a couple of very important reasons.

First, both of these statements recognize that life exists in relation to God and others. We are not alone and despite our tendency to be independent, and many of you are facing the thrill of being independent, the fullness of life can only be encountered in relationships with God and others that are based on love. Though we are individually made, we are made to be in community with God and with others.

Second, both Micah and Jesus call us to live our lives for others and not primarily for ourselves. To do justice, to love mercy, and to love others as we would want to be loved means that we ought to live our lives not in selfish gain, but in self giving sacrifice expressed towards our friends, strangers, and yes, even our enemies.

If I consider these verses and others like them to be the center piece of the biblical message, then these should become for me the moral and spiritual compass by which my life is guided. And if these words are the moral and spiritual compass of my life, then they must become the basis from which I formulate how I want my life to be shaped, now and in the future.

So, as you enter this next exciting, but uncharted, phase of your life, in whichever direction God leads you, may each of you live your life guided by the will of God that calls us into loving relationships with God and others; relationships that are characterized by your actions of love, justice and mercy.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

God Dreams of Welcoming All People

Acts chapter 10 tells of the vision Peter encounters while he is at prayer; a vision that brought about a radical shift in not only Peter’s life, but also in the movement that would become known as Christianity.

In that experience, Peter came to realize that ethnic, racial, and cultural differences cannot hinder the proclamation of the gospel and the work of God to create a new humanity that would consist of people from every land, language, and background. In reporting his experience to the Jewish believers in Judea (Acts 11), who were initially critical of Peter’s new position, Peter replied, “Who am I to hinder God?” Thus began the openness of the early Christian movement.

In fact, we might even suggest that one of the key characteristics of early Christianity as it began to grow and develop was the welcoming of all into the people of God. The practice of hospitality among early Christians may even have been the impetus that caused the growth of this new movement. In a world of ethnic, economic and political exclusion, the early Christian movement welcomed all in the name of Jesus and demonstrated the new ethic of love that Jesus instituted among his followers. His was a new commandment that called for his followers to love others just as he had loved them, and to share that love across any man-made boundaries that separated all of God’s people.

This is not to imply that everything went smoothly for the growth of Christianity as an inclusive faith, for there was still resistance to accepting all into the community of faith, just as Peter and others initially resisted the inclusion of the Gentiles. But, nevertheless, the inclusive nature that was shaping Christianity was the product of a gospel of love and welcome.

That practice of love through welcome was to be a powerful force that served to symbolize what the world was intended to be by its creator. The early Christian ethic of love and embrace was to represent a return to God’s intention for humanity to be one humanity that consisted of diverse peoples from all walks of life. This was the vision of God, this was the vision of Jesus, and this became the vision of Peter.

But what has happened to this vision? What has happen to the Jesus ethic of love and welcome? And why, instead of seeking to return to that vision, Christianity has become more entrenched in its practice of exclusion?

I am reminded of the words accredited to Karl Barth, the most prolific theologian of the 20th century, who, when he was asked to give advice to young preachers about preaching, replied, “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both.”

As I recall Barth’s advice, I realize how important it is to remember that if we believe that scripture, though written in a far away time, place, and culture, still has relevancy for our living out the gospel of Jesus, then reading scripture in light of contemporary events, and reading contemporary events in light of scripture, is vitally important to shaping how we might respond to those events.

In reading Peter’s experience and his change of heart from one of exclusion to one of embrace, I cannot help but think of the current political and legal battles that are taking place over immigration in the United States. Over the last couple of weeks, news has spread about Arizona’s new immigration law, one that seems to take a very aggressive stance that will affect all immigrants, legal or illegal, as well as their families and the good citizens and communities of this country who show compassion to them.

How might scripture inform us as we struggle to formulate faithful Christian responses to the issue of immigration? First, we need to recall God’s commands to Israel regarding aliens in their midst. The Mosaic Law states that God is one “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” Moses goes on to command Israel to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19).

When we turn to the New Testament, we find that followers of Christ are called citizens of the Kingdom of God, and aliens and strangers to the world. The Christian movement negated ethnic differences and crossed boundaries of ethnic separation to welcome all into the Kingdom of God.

Moreover, Paul reaffirms the breaking down of ethnic divisions by stating that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, for the wall of separation has been torn down, and the two have been joined together into one new humanity. And, of course, the story of Peter epitomizes the dream of God and the force of the gospel of inclusion.

That same vision of unity among God’s people is also the vision that God dreams for the new heaven and new earth. John’s vision of the new heaven and new earth about which we read in Revelation 21 is God’s dream to move all of creation toward unity and togetherness through welcoming all. It is a dream in which all the peoples of the world will find peace and comfort. It is a vision of the New Jerusalem, whose gates will not be shut. In God’s dream, the new creation will have no boarders.

Peter experienced a conversion through which he became convinced of God’s dream and God’s will to fulfill that dream through bringing Jew and Gentile into one people. He knew that he could not hinder God’s moving forward to see the fulfillment of that dream. So, instead of making attempts to hinder God, Peter decided it would be best to join God in welcoming others.

God’s dream and will remains the same for us. God desires to transform our world from a place of division, exclusion, strife, and war, to one of unity, inclusion, love and peace. God dreams and wills for humanity to be one. Are we doing our best to hinder what God is doing, or are we joining with God by being captivated by God’s dream of welcoming all?