Sunday, May 11, 2014

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 2
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

I’m not saying my brother is a tyrant, but when you’re the skipper in a race, it kind of comes with the territory.

And so, through the years we have come to understand our own Captain Bligh, and the kind of things that should and should not happen on the boat. First, no idle chit-chat. ‘Come on people, we’re racing.’ I get that. Second, focus on your job. ‘Trim to my course.’ No problem. Third, sail your own race, which means don’t spend your time admiring all the pretty boats.

And so while most of the crew is suffering under our own version of Pharaoh—we’ll call it the sailing equivalent of making bricks without straw—I’m longing for the skipper’s next business trip, when I get to be Captain Bligh instead. His last words are usually something like ‘don’t break my boat,’ but after that, it’s carte blanche.

Of course, after the race, when the prohibition on idle chit-chat is over, we have an opportunity to enjoy each other and get caught up. And to add something positive to my portrait of the skipper, he frequently invites beginners and newcomers on board, and so we get to sail, meet new people, and be oppressed all at the same time.

Meeting new people, the pattern is often the same. It’s not a secret that we are sailing with a clergyman on board, although it is considered bad luck. Ignoring that, there is often a moment—usually over a pint—when someone says ‘wait, you’re a minister?’ Then the questions come.

The first question is usually something general, like ‘what do ministers actually do?’ Good question. ‘We sail on Tuesdays.’ The next question—and I’m never sure why—is often something like ‘how do you get paid?’ And if I’m not quick enough to say ‘generously, by the loveliest people you’ll ever meet,’ there is a follow-up question such as ‘you must be paid by the government, right?’

When you hear a theory like this more than once, you begin to puzzle at the logic of such a suggestion. Working for the public good means a government salary? Maybe. The more likely theory is that people simply can’t conceive how such an unusual occupation might be remunerated.

Really, all I need to do is read them Acts 2:

43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.

In other words, a co-op. A group of people pool their resources for the sake of the whole. “All the believers were together and had everything in common.” Well, maybe not everything. A congregation this size is going to need more than one lawn mower, but the overall theory still stands: To enhance our life together as believers, we gather our resources and focus them here. Praising God, helping others, making a space for the community, or to quote the great Fred Kaan, “worship and work must be one.”

Back to the sailboat for just a moment, people find all this hard to believe. They will even argue the point: “Yes, but how does a group of a few dozen people manage all that?” Deep commitment, a sense of common purpose, the gracious response of a people who feel blessed by God—I can go on for some time, but people still struggle to accept this. And I can tell you why.

My in-house biblical scholar tells me that a primary preoccupation in the time of Jesus was establishing kinship ties. If you determined that someone was kin (“hey, aren’t you my father’s cousin’s brother’s nephew from Gilead?”) then you had some obligations under the rules of kinship. You might give them a goat, not because you want to, but because you have to. After all, they’re kin.

Outsiders, on the other hand, were not really your concern. In the absence of any kinship tie, you could simply ignore them or interact with them on the basis of quid pro quo. You want a goat, you need to give me some shekels. There are no free goats for you, my friend.

And then, into this world, something else arrived. Something now called ‘fictive kinship,’ a type of kinship that was not literally kinship, but had all the hallmarks of kinship. As soon as people started calling each other ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ and as soon as they started holding things in common, something completely new began to develop.

And Jesus himself set the parameters of this in Matthew 12:

Someone told Jesus, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” 48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

And while to still sounds a little harsh, especially on Mother’s Day of all days, the point was fictive kinship: we may be companions and friends, but we will function as kinfolk, without quid pro quo, without suspicion, and without the sense that there is anything that separates us, one from another.

So how do we get people to understand? Well, it would seem best to try to be an Acts 2 kind of community. And how we define this will determine the example we set, the message we send to the world out there.

So Acts 2. In what might be the most important chapter in the Bible (I can make outrageous claims like this because Carmen is not here today) we experience the birth of the church at Pentecost, we hear Peter’s most important sermon—the sermon where he both convicts the crowd for the death of Jesus and shares the Good News of forgiveness in Jesus. And finally, we get this wonderful description of the nascent church, holding things in common, but also dedicated to fellowship, breaking bread together and prayer.

In other words, a community like no other. Now, part of the problem for modern-day evangelists is that we don’t like making claims like saying we are a community like no other. Perhaps we remember the bad old days of Christian triumphalism, the abiding sense that we had the key to truth and salvation. We don’t want to go back there, to be sure.

And then there is the other argument we hear, often from people in the church, that their book group or lacrosse team or their yacht club is also a very caring group, filled with lots of caring people, but then the argument begins to trail off. Maybe they remember that these groups require rules to function, or have embedded quid pro quo into the fabric of the organization (so many volunteer hours required or you must pay extra).

Or perhaps they begin to recognize that most groups in society—and even society itself—runs on a program of mutual self-interest. And that’s not a bad thing, it’s a very good thing. Mutual self-interest keeps nations from going to war, and gives us schools and hospitals, and every other benefit to being part of society.

But it’s not like kinship. No one is going to give you a goat or continuously forgive your foolishness based in mutual self-interest. Reciprocity is a system that works, but it won’t give you a glimpse of the Kingdom. No, if you want a glimpse of the Kingdom you need to visit a congregation, maybe one that looks just like this, where people hold things in common, dedicate themselves to fellowship, and breaking bread together, and prayer.

Of course being an Acts 2 group is not without challenges. We may get snippy, or have doubts, or even hold back a little (Acts 5 has an answer for that, but that’s another sermon altogether!), but at the end of the day we are a forgiveness people. We are fictive kin, living as the best families live, in a context of love and forgiveness, and constant prayer, amen.


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