It is awesome to be standing in this Canterbury Pulpit.
Actually, this is not a first. When I’d not been ordained very long myself, I preached here at an ordination of deacons back when Eisenhower was president, Angus Dun was bishop of Washington, Francis Sayre was in the early years of his long and distinguished deanship, and the present dean was an elementary school kid out near Hollywood. He was one of the best students I ever had and is a dear friend. I thank inviting me to be here.
There is a lot for a preacher to consider today. It is Mother’s Day. It is Good Shepherd Sunday with that wonderful passage about Jesus as shepherd. There is the passage from First Peter about Jesus’ faithful endurance. But it was the first reading from Acts with its account of the life together of the first generation of Christians that kept leaping out and nudging me, and led to this sermon.
On this fourth Sunday of Easter we continue the celebration begun on April 20 of Jesus’ resurrection, of Jesus’ outlasting of the religious and political powers that mercilessly and unjustly executed him, of his outlasting of the death they meant to be the end of him. We celebrate the experience of Jesus’ earliest followers—“in ways,” as Bishop Dun put it, “that outran all their powers of telling and baffled their understanding”—that Jesus had survived, had been raised from, death.
But just as death had not ended who Jesus was and what Jesus had come to do, so the experience of his resurrection was not the end of the matter either. The risen Jesus gathered them after forty days, and said, “Now it’s over to you—my Spirit will be with you, but now it’s over to you.” St Paul’s way of putting that was, “You are now the body of Christ.”
That is why the first readings on the Sundays of Easter are from The Acts of the Apostles. They are about that early time when “church” did not denote a building, but the life of Jesus’ followers as Jesus’ body. They recount how those first generation Christians lived as the body of the risen Christ.
Today’s selection goes, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. … [And] all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” I hear in that three things about what it is to live the resurrection life into which Jesus has called his church.
First, they were church, they lived as Christ’s resurrected body, by being together. Christianity is a corporate thing. Its locus is the body of Christ of which individual Christians are constituent parts. Jesus did not provide for the continuation of what he had begun by anointing an individual, messianic successor, but by anointing a gathered people with his spirit.
Jesus’ legacy was not a spirituality for individuals or a system of personal piety. Jesus’ threefold legacy was teaching about doing justice and loving-kindness in the life we share with others, a prayer to our (not my) God as our parent, and a meal in which Jesus is with us as we celebrate together who we are in him. They were church by being together. And so are we. That’s the first thing.
Second, they were church by doing, by doing together the things Jesus gave them to do. Acts 2:42–47 does characterize them as “those who believed,” but what it says is 180 degrees away from defining Christianity as “belief” in the sense of subscription to abstract, doctrinal theories. They were church not by virtue of loyalty to a statement of belief, but by living with Jesus in the body of Jesus’ followers as they came together to listen to Jesus’ teaching on justice and love, to break bread in Holy Communion, and to pray. Their priority was on belief as trust in the Spirit present in the life and sacraments and prayers of the church. It was not like belief that, say, two and two are four. It was like believe in mother who feeds us and cleans us and cares for us. The point was not ortho-doxy; it was “ortho-practice.”
I am a recovering alcoholic. I was once asked if I am not as a theologian put off and frustrated by what the inquirer saw as the shallowness of the theology expounded in Alcoholics Anonymous. My response was and is that theology, theoretical interpretation of what the program means is not the point. The point is going to meetings, reading the book, and not drinking. However you interpret them, those actions include you in a community, a movement, in which healing happens. The interpretation is secondary to the actions. The power is in doing the program together.
So it was with those first Christians, and so it still is. However you define their meaning, by whatever doctrine you explain them, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, the prayers—the gathered church, the communion meal, and the community prayers—are primary. There is no meaning without them. It is doing with the community what the community does that makes us one with one another and with Jesus. It was, and is, in doing with the community what the community does that we experience the Easter miracle. That is the second thing.
The third is this: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” They shared what they had with all, as any had need.
That all are entitled to what they need, justice in the distribution of the world’s wealth, is a central biblical theme. It runs through the Bible from the Torah’s injunction to leave the corners of the fields unharvested to be reaped by those in need to Jesus’ insistence that serving him must involve serving those who are hungry or thirsty or outcast or naked or sick or in prison. So for those first Christians being Jesus’ body, Jesus’ people, involved converting the wealth of those who had into provision for the needs of all.
That continued as years passed and the church grew. Peter Brown’s Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire describes how the empire as such took no responsibility for a social safety net, left whatever was done along those lines to the whimsical and arbitrary largesse of the wealthy. In contrast, Brown describes how the church expected all its members to contribute regularly toward the church’s distributing to all as any had need.
Notable among Christian martyrs in the centuries before Rome decreed it legal to be Christian were deacons, like Laurence. Unlicensed and illegal though it was, the Church had by the third century grown in membership and wealth. In an empire unconcerned about human welfare and need, the church’s use of its wealth to meet human need became a huge thing, for which deacons were responsible. The Church became the empire’s department of human services and the deacons its administrators.
But the empire did not want such a department. Its policy was to protect and expand its power and to suppress threats and opposition to that power. So it went after the church, confiscating the church’s wealth to augment its oppressive power, and executing the deacons as subverters of its oppressive purposes: “If we allow those Christians, those deacons, to coddle the poor, our hold on the poor will be weakened and our exploitation of them for our imperial expansion compromised.”
And what was true of the church in the third century was true in the early twentieth century when the framers of the charter of this cathedral said that it exists in our nation’s capitol to promote religion and education and social justice. It is true today as Pope Francis calls the leaders of the nations to regulate economic structures in the interest of just distribution of the world’s wealth. The point is that Jesus’ call to his church has to do not only with word and sacrament and prayer. It has to do with the distribution of wealth to all as any have need. It is about how not only churches, but societies and nations and economic systems, are meant by God to be.
Jesus’ last, climactic parable in Matthew’s gospel is about how caring for the hungry and thirsty and homeless and ill-clad and sick and imprisoned is to care for Jesus himself, and how not to do so is to refuse to care for Jesus himself. Often overlooked is how Jesus begins the parable with, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory in judgment … all the nations will be gathered before him.” It is not about optional, individual, pious acts. Jesus is saying that nations are finally to be judged on the basis of their response to human need. Jesus is talking about public policy.
More subtle and less violent than Rome’s martyrdom of deacons and confiscation of the Church’s wealth is our own country’s abandonment, beginning in the eighties, of its social safety net and its regulation of the financial industry in the interest of the general welfare. That abandonment, for followers of Jesus and Jesus’ God, involves the same fundamental issue that led to Rome’s persecution of the church and its martyrdom of those deacons. It involves the principle so simply and movingly posed by today’s reading from Acts: “[They] had all things in common; [and] would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Inseparably connected with the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread, and the prayers is justice in the distribution of wealth, humane public policy. Neither the pope not I is abandoning religion for secular political activity. It is just that we have read our Bibles and seen all that is there.
So there it is, this beautiful little account of those first Christians sharing in Jesus’ resurrection life in being together, in praying together, in breaking the communion bread together, in acting together as if the wealth they controlled existed for the needs of all. The beautifully simple, yet richly profound, life it pictures outlasted the Roman Empire. And it will outlast the distributive injustice of today’s economic structures, the immorality of that vast chasm now separating the wealthy few from the rest of humanity. It will outlast them because it is the life of Jesus who continues to outlast any crucifixion with which unjust, inhumane, uncaring power would be rid of him. Jesus lives in that beautifully simple, yet richly profound, life described for us today in Acts.
And Jesus invites us to live that life with him—to begin right here, right now, as we move from preaching and thinking to doing, to praying together and coming together to Jesus’ communion table, and by going out and working and voting and doing what we can in the service of that distributive justice which is fundamental for the Bible and for Christianity and for the Easter Jesus.
Alleluia! The Lord is risen!