Reading: Acts 2:42-47
We all know that community is important. If I search for books about church community and a vision of church community, they are abundant. If I ask somebody to tell me what Quakers practice, I might get the answer Howard Brinton gave: “SPICE — Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality.” Today, we read in scripture about how important a close community was in the early church, and we have not stopped talking about community. With all the words Christians of all kinds spend talking about community, one would think that we’d be great at it — that it was a treasure that we inherited.
Since I’ve grown up in the church, and I can say that it is and has always has been an important community in my life, I will say the good and the bad things about my experience in this community. I will start with the bad: The bad news is that all those books about living in community don’t come because we are good at it. The mythology of our nation is one of great individuals, not of strong communities. When we tell our stories, we focus on the works of individuals, not of the communities. As much as we value our institutions, we really want to give the institution a face and a single human story.
Even worse, our culture focuses on the individual has gone to the point that we do not value people for what they contribute to the community, but instead we value people for their ability to serve and enrich themselves. One example of this is school teachers. We expect a school teacher to earn two degrees before qualifying for a license; one in the subject they teach, and the other in education. After they are licensed, we expect them to continue as part-time students until earning a masters degree in Education.
Teaching is clearly a position that serves the community. If our population is poorly educated, we all suffer. Our health, wealth, and comfort are dependent on not only ourselves but our neighbors. If our community is ignorant, the whole community suffers from the ignorance of the community no matter how well educated the individual is. Teachers work to enrich us all.
In spite of this, this year we’ve heard many people speaking against teachers. Recently, teachers have also been complaining about little our society values education. They have been complaining about wages that leave them too close to poverty, they have been complaining about classrooms that are falling apart due to delayed maintenance, about being under-supplied, about textbooks that have not been replaced in over 20 years. We also know that some state legislatures have debated laws making it illegal for teachers to protest, and banning teachers unions who bring forward these complaints. We all know the George Bernard Shaw’s proverb: “Those who can, do. Those who cannot teach.” We live in a time that despises teachers, in spite of their great value to our society.
If our dominant culture valued community, it would praise those who made choices that benefit the community as a whole. Teachers would be treated with as much respect as we give to successful businessmen and highly skilled professionals. We would value teachers, because teachers work on building up the community. Because our culture does not value community, teachers are too often treated as undeserving and unwanted.
The good news is that we are the Church is Salt, and Light, and Yeast, and Mustard. In places where the culture gets something wrong, the Church has a call to be counter cultural. It is hard to be counter cultural; it is hard, because we are not used to examining those things we are used to. It is easier to ignore community and make faith all about me than it is to think about community in an individualistic society. It is easier to make faith all about me than it is to learn about community, but, I and Christians everywhere read Acts, and we all must find a way to figure out what to make of the community of the Early church.
I grew up in America’s culture. I also grew up in the church. The good news is, as hard as it is to question those parts of culture that are contrary to what our faith teaches us; we manage to question them. All those books about community exist, because people are trying to be faithful to Christ rather than the world.
I know I’ve told you about times when my wider church community struggled when I was a teenager. Back in the 1990’s, we had some pretty bad luck with money; one of the causes of bad luck was that the pastors used a denominational group plan for health insurance, and without warning, the insurance company stopped paying bills. It turns out that the company was embezzled by an executive, and the company shut down and the executive was imprisoned, but this left the pastors without insurance until we found another company.
What I recall is that churches all over raised money to pay pastor’s medical bills. We were not scattered churches, we were a wider community who responded to the needs of others. You might say that this terrible need was shared in common. It would be easy to complain about the company that collapsed, and the executive who caused the collapse, and then leave those with surprise medical bills to go bankrupt, but many people shared the pain. This did a lot to teach me about how the church is community.
We read about the early church, and sometimes it is hard to connect. I don’t know what it is like to be part of a persecuted community. I cannot imagine the hardships that brought the individuals who owned something to give up everything they owned because the need was so great. I am thankful that I’ve never suffered persecution, but it means that I have some difficulty understanding the context of scripture. It is easy to forget that we are not reading about people who met in big beautiful buildings, and were seen as pillars of society, we are reading about a group of fugitives, who met secretly in modest rooms, and shared with each other how their faith gave them hope. I saw evidence of my community over a difficulty that we proved able to manage, the early church faced danger that was far beyond their control.
The early church was bound together both by their common faith, and by the common danger of persecution. Sometimes it is hard for me to find the right way to live in today’s world, because most of the things I know about the Christian life I know from our history of persecution. The New Testament was written during a time of persecution, my denomination experienced persecution during the time of its founding; and I grew up in an area settled by Mennonites, who had similar stories from their past.
Sometimes I worry that we are always looking at the times of persecution and suffering, and we have no idea how to live in a time when we are welcome in society. I wonder how often we act in ways that are not helpful, because the situation has changed. I want us to have a strong community like they had in the first chapters of Acts, but I don’t want the problems they had.
I know I’m jumping ahead, and we’ll get back to this later, but when Paul became a Christian it took a miracle for the Christian community to forgive and accept him. Paul, as you remember started the story as one of those who persecuted the church, but he had an encounter with a blinding light and the voice of Jesus. The Voice sent him to a Christian who would pray that his sight be restored. It took more than Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus, however. In order for Paul to be accepted by the Christian community, a member of the community had to have the same kind of experience that Paul did — a vision commanding him to accept Paul. Not only did Paul need correcting, but Ananias did as well.
Community is important, but when we idealize the church in the first few chapters of Acts, we miss that even their community had to grow and change. They were bound together by fear of persecution and a common enemy — but God called them to forgive their enemy, and to accept him as a member of the community. Things change, and God changes hearts. I’m not completely sure what the perfect church community would look like; I know that it would be a community where people shared their faith, and they looked after each other, but I really don’t feel I could say much beyond this. I believe, however, that the church is ultimately the community of people who do their best to live with Jesus; and to help each other live out everything that this implies. I also believe that we won’t always get it right; there isn’t a time we can look back on and say: “We always got it right then.” What we can do is keep trying, and keep encouraging each other. Ultimately, if we do that, we will be a community.