“The Claims of Community”
April 13, 2008
Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 13, 2008
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Here’s a tiny multiple choice quiz for you: John Calvin, one of the great theological minds of the Reformation and a spiritual father of Presbyterians…what do you think he did on Sundays, after church? Here are your choices. After church on the Lord’s Day, Calvin…
A. Visited the sick and shut-in members of his local congregation.
B. Spent time studying the Bible.
C. Served meals to children in an orphanage.
D. Went bowling.
The answer is D. John Calvin took the Sabbath—the day of worship and rest and recreation—seriously. After church on Sunday, Calvin went bowling. My question is, did he bowl in a league, or did he bowl alone?
Almost eight years ago a Harvard professor of Public Policy published a book which began with a curious little fact. In the previous ten years, he reported, the number of people who bowled had risen by 10 percent, raising the number bowlers in the United States to record levels. However, over the same period, the number of people who bowled in leagues declined by 40 percent. What this means is that people are bowling, but they are, for the most part, bowling alone… not in groups or on teams as in years past.
The same book cited example after example of other ways in which Americans pulled back from community activities: the Roanoke, Virginia chapter of the NAACP used to boast a membership of more than 2500. But during the 1990’s only a couple of hundred members remained. The Little Rock, Arkansas Sertoma Club had a weekly luncheon for years drawing more than 50 people to plan activities to support the cause of aiding those with visual and hearing impairments. By the mid-90’s, however, only seven members continued to show up for that planning meeting. Just one more. In 1999 the brand-new building for Tewksbury Memorial High School was dedicated in that small city north of Boston. The new building boasted 40 brand new royal blue uniforms for the marching band, which sat in a closet the first year the school was open because only four students had signed up.
As we members of mainline churches look back with concern at our declining numbers over the last 25 to 40 years, it is important that we understand that we are a part of a trend that can be observed throughout American society. There has been a precipitous decline in participation in all kinds of community activities during this time period. Sociologists have some thoughts as to why this has been occurring, and you probably know a lot of them intuitively. With more people in the work force there are by necessity fewer volunteer hours available each week. With an economy that is as uncertain as the one we face right now, combined with spiraling energy costs, people often need to have more than one job to make ends meet. But there are other factors as well. That Harvard professor points out that even our leisure time has gone from community-centered activities—such as bowling in leagues—to individually-centered activities—such as bowling alone, or spending time on computers and the internet. The forces that drive us out of community, out of relationship to one another, and into our own private worlds, are powerful and pervasive. The vision we start to have of life in these United States is a vision of 300 million solitary units; men, women and even children eating alone, their faces illuminated by the flickering light of television or computer screens.
Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles offers us a startlingly different vision: a vision of community. Because the Lectionary doesn’t necessarily present our readings in strict chronological order, this is a description of life after Pentecost, written by the same author as the gospel of Luke. After the pouring out of the Holy Spirit and the inspired preaching of Peter that follows it, a call is issued to the crowds to come forward to be baptized: the scripture tells us, about three thousand people were added to number of believers that day. Then comes our passage:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 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. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. ~ Acts 2:42-47
This little passage is repeated one way or another several times throughout Acts, all to show how the church is growing and thriving. In a way, it gives us a blueprint for how a faith community grows. There are five main activities or values around which the community is formed: Teaching, Fellowship, Eating together, Prayer, and Sharing of financial burdens.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” The first hallmark of the fledgling Christian community is that the members gather together to learn. At the time these events occurred, there was no “New Testament” for the believers to study. Rather, they took in the teachings of the apostles, those who had been gathered around Jesus during his ministry. Community is formed around a common vision, in this case, around the vision that Jesus gave us in his teachings: love of God and one another, mutuality, forgiveness. A shared vision, usually a result of intentional study together, is the first core value of Christian community.
They devoted themselves, also, to Fellowship. This is something we do very, very well here at Our Church. We love a good excuse to get together and enjoy one another’s company, or talents, or even to laugh together and be silly. Last Sunday about thirty of us ran around on the streets of Our Town all afternoon, clapping our hands and attracting the stares of passing motorists. We were having fun together, as we strived to achieve a single purpose: to help our youth group to create an award-winning video showing what doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God (or dancing enthusiastically with God) might look like. But here is the truth: it was fun simply because we were together. Fellowship is the second core value of Christian community.
Another thing we do wonderfully here is to break bread together. We do that in a whole bunch of different ways. We break bread together at our marvelous coffee hours, where the coffee flows and the goodies are delectable. We break bread at our dinners…the weekly soup suppers during Lent, the Birthday dinner in January, our Harvest Supper in the fall. And we break bread around that table that is not ours, but God’s: the communion table. I think Luke is deliberately vague about the nature of the meals the early Christians shared. Is he referring to the kind of table fellowship we experience at a coffee hour, or the kind we experience when we share the Lord’s Supper? I think the answer is: both. Table fellowship, sharing meals together, binds us together. When we bring a dish to pass, we can find that Jesus is made known in our midst just as dramatically as when we gather around the communion table for a sip of juice and a tiny piece of bread. Jesus is made known in this central act, the third core value of Christian community.
The early Christians also prayed together. We pray together on Sunday mornings. We begin and end our session meetings and our committee meetings with prayer. We pray together over our meals, and at the bedsides of those who are ill. I think we can pray together still more than we do. It’s not something that comes as naturally to us Presbyterians as it does to some folks in other Christian traditions. But I think the more comfortable we get praying together, the stronger and healthier our community becomes. What if we were to gather to pray, period? Not prayer as brackets around some other activity, but prayer for its own sake, because communion with God is so desirable? Prayer is fourth core value of Christian community.
Finally, we come to the part of this passage that makes most people squirm in their seats. In fact, a preacher doing research on this passage will often find scholars doing whatever they can to wiggle out of it. “Of course, this is an idealized vision of the early church,” they will say. “We doubt it was ever really like this.” Here is what Luke says: “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” [Acts 2:44-45]. If this sounds familiar, it certainly brings echoes of a slogan popularized in the 19th century, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Those are the words of Karl Marx, which is why this passage tends to freak people out. Communism! Say it isn’t so! But this passage is nothing more than the promise fulfilled of Jesus’ words in the gospels, when he entreats anyone who will listen with the hard message that discipleship has to do with surrendering possessions, giving the proceeds to the poor, and following Jesus, with complete abandon and complete freedom.
Ouch. This girl likes her possessions. I’m guessing you do, too. But this is one of the hard sayings of the gospel, one which invites us out of our worlds of individual isolation and into real community. Real community exists when the welfare of all is the concern of all. Real community exists when everyone gives everything they can so that no one will go hungry, or go without health care, or go into retirement a pauper. One of the hardest things for people to understand, in a society where community is less and less valued, is the fact that it is not possible to be a Christian alone. It can’t be done. As one great saint of the church asked, “Whose feet will you wash?” I would add, “Who will you bowl with?”
God has entrusted us into one another’s care. As we strive for this “Christian style of living that prizes intellectual vibrancy, economic generosity, and communal caring,” community will be formed and reformed. I don’t think we can expect our church to look exactly like this nascent Christian community, any more than we can expect it to look like that of the 1950’s and 60’s. But God is always doing a new thing. This new community will “not happen casually or automatically. It requires intentionality, effort, and choice.”[i] These choices might include turning off our computers, stepping out the front doors of our homes, and saying hello to the people we meet. We might choose to participate in a Bible Study or to serve on a committee or board. We might choose to show up for one of the many social events offered here at Our Church. We might even choose to dig a little deeper into our pockets, knowing that the ministry of the church depends upon everybody’s generous support. Whatever the choices we make in favor of community, we can be assured that we will be participating in God’s new plan for us: life for and with one another, ever more abundant life. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Daniel Clendinin, “Apostolic Devotion: The Actual Historical Tradition,” in Journey With Jesus: Notes to Myself (http://journeywithjesus.net/).