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From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada). Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way". Contact Barry at firstname.lastname@example.org to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson
The Fourth Sunday of Easter - Year A
Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10
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 time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. Last week I was so tough on you some of you probably wondered if you'd ever come back. I just told it straight for once without any attempt to wrap it up in a three-pointer that would make everybody feel good at the end. Preached the kind of sermon that probably made you feel bad instead - just the way Peter preached it on that first day of Pentecost. And some of you were probably wondering why I didn't end with what the people did in response to Peter's Easter heart to heart. Luke says that after asking Peter "Brothers, what should we do?" Peter told them to change their ways in a hurry and, while they were at it, to get baptized, which probably meant to get dunked not sprinkled. To walk right into the river of death with Jesus so that God could wash away all the stuff that was killing them and give them instead what would let them breathe again - which is what is meant by Spirit, by the way. "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation," he added on for good measure because he wanted them to know that the kind of change God was expecting of them had to be the real thing. Luke says that "about three thousand persons" were added to their number that day. Not bad for a negative sermon, eh?! Maybe your preachers should take the risk of just telling it straight more often, rather than worrying about what people are going to think. See what can happen when people end up feeling bad about a sermon?! Sometimes, guilt can be a good thing! Good when it leads to the real thing, which is what we get to talk about this week. + And what we get to talk about this week is ecclesia. It is the Greek word from which we get our word 'church'. It is worth remembering that it means: those who have been called out of something, the way that first ragtag band of people who ended up following Jesus were called out of whatever it was they were doing at the time. The first time around Jesus had shown up on their doorstep and just called their names in a way that was simply irresistible. Like somebody shouting to you from outside saying, "Hey, come here! Ya' gotta see this!" And you drop your pen or hammer for a moment and rush outside just to see what all the fuss is about. It's been raining and the storm has just passed. The sun is just starting to come out from behind the clouds and people are staring up at the gosh-darndest, most drop-dead gorgeous rainbow you or anyone else has ever seen. Just standing there mesmerized by it because, for that single moment at least, nothing else seems more important. That's how the gospels seem to describe it happening the first time to Peter and Matthew and Mary and Judas and all the rest. For one glorious moment that was Jesus of Nazareth the clouds parted and they saw the wonder of him arching across the grayness of their lives. There was nothing else to do but to get up and start following. The second time around was a bit more of a challenge. It was sometime after Good Friday, that day when the powers that be had proven one more time that fear and hatred still kill and that no one is safe, not even the best and bravest among us. The clouds were back, dark and brooding, and life looked as bleak and as hopeless as that day before they had first met him. Every last one of them had found a place to hide from their fears and a way to settle back into the way the world always seems to be. Now nothing seemed more important than pushing those numbers across the page and making sure they had enough to eat. And then Easter happened to them, however it did, whenever it did. It wasn't a rainbow this time. More like a thunderclap. Like a summons out of nowhere, like a desperate cry for help that wakes you up in the middle of the night, cold and shivering. Time is of the essence. Somebody is in trouble. You are needed to do something right away. You. And you have that queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach that tells you, "It might be a good idea not to get involved. A whole lot smarter to stay right where you are and snuggle back under the covers." But either way, you have to decide right way; and a lot - maybe everything - is riding on what you do decide. That was the challenge Peter and the others heard the second time Jesus walked back into their lives. It was up to them now, he was telling them; and suddenly they had a decision to make about how they were going to live from that moment on. They could settle back under the covers and pretend that he had never happened or they could fling the doors of their hearts wide open and be prepared for anything. My guess is that is the same thing that crowd of people heard too that day Peter stood up and preached to them. "Get ready for a holy hurricane, if you are serious about this stuff," Peter was telling them. Once this Jesus comes into your life, you can forget about everything you thought you knew. Up will be down and first will be last and if you think you know how things will turn out in the end, think again; because, once his love begins to fill your heart, anything is possible. Anything!" And it was then that that - anything - began to happen. "Awe came upon everyone," Luke says, in his wonderfully laconic style. Awe is another name for holy fear. In response to what they had heard Peter say and what the apostles continued to teach, something stranger than anything they ever could have imagined started to happen right there in their midst. They started meeting together, not to pass the budget, but because they actually wanted to be together. And even stranger - "What's mine is yours" suddenly became everybody's motto; and they were so concerned about seeing to it that every last person had what he or she needed that nobody did need a thing! Those of them with pockets so deep they hardly had room for it all suddenly giving it away like money had gone out of style! Turning in the family farm so that they could pay for somebody else's rent! Absolute craziness! It would have given their stockbroker a perfect fit! "Communists!" some of us probably would have called them. "Hippies!" Because suddenly commune-ity suddenly no longer meant the place where you live but the place where you help others come alive and, in the process, end up coming alive yourself. Holding things in common, giving away what you didn't need, meeting together out of a gladness and generosity of spirit that simply filled your heart - that is how Luke described what happened to all those people that day. Suddenly, without anybody noticing how, all the things Jesus himself had ever said and did, all the things he had ever tried to get them to do while he was there among them - were happening right there in their midst - as they found themselves called out of an old way of being in the world and into a new way. Ecclesia. + I think it is mostly a strange story for people like you and me - people who have spent their whole lives within an institution that has, for the most part, pretended to be about the way of Jesus and, when it comes right down to it, has proven that it is not much different from all the other worldly powers out there. We set out to take over the world and pretty much did it for awhile at least. We converted emperors and raised armies and lined our pockets with as much loot as they would hold. We did some pretty ugly things down through the centuries; and we're still doing them. A lot of us have been smug and busy and as cruel as can be; and if we are sometimes shocked by what people think of us, we shouldn't be; because we've pretty much deserved all the bad press we've gotten. But before you start feeling bad again, let me remind you that it's not the way things always were. There was a time when we really did let ourselves get called out of all that superficial stuff we call free enterprise and looking out for number one and doing it to them before they do it to us. There was a time when we were something that made people turn their heads and say, "That's different!" A time when people looked at the way we treated one another and said, "My, my, how those people really do love one another! Wonder what's gotten into them?!" And, of course, we could be that way again anytime we want to do more than go through the motions here and actually get saved from all that really is ailing us and go down into those waters of baptism once more and see what that rainbow he is can make of us this time. --------- Acts 2.42-47 - It's nice to indulge our imagination every once in a while and think about how our experience of 'church' would be different if it were even close to the way the early Christian community is described in Acts. Of course, we should remember that Luke is looking back, too; and by the time he probably wrote this, the church had probably already formed things like committees and started to have agendas and electing official looking people just like we do. There seems to be something about "groups" that eventually leads to bureaucracy. Maybe that's why remembering the church means those who are called out of something is a good way for us to examine what it would mean for us to become again like those first friends of Jesus - when things we're really cooking! 1. Make a list of the strengths Luke identifies in the early Christian community. 2. Compare that list with what people think are important in your church. 3. What would it take for you and the people in your community to become more like the friends of Jesus as Luke describes them in the book of Acts? 1 Peter 2.19-25 - If you were ever in doubt about the problem of trying to follow the Bible literally, this passage should cure you. It is an example of the fact that the scriptures were written by particular people at a particular time in history to address particular circumstances. Here is a passage that assumes that slavery, for instance, is an acceptable practice. Although the passage is meant to portray the example of Jesus in the face of violence and abusive behaviour, it is not hard to see how such scripture has been misused to justify an inhuman practice - which is precisely what slave-owners in the American colonies and the rulers of apartheid used to do. 1. How does such a passage make you feel about the problem of interpreting the Bible? 2. What do you think is important about the way we go about making interpretations? John 10.1-10 - The problem of discerning false and even dangerous leadership within the Church has always been with us. John is attempting to address that problem by offering some suggestions for discernment. The passage is part of a much larger one whose focus is Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The Church is to measure all ministry by the model of Jesus' life and ministry. 1. How practical are John's suggestions for telling the difference between good leaders and bad ones? 2. Give some examples of good and bad leadership you have observed in the church. 3. In what ways is the church today very vulnerable to the kind of false shepherds referred to in this week's passage? FOR FURTHER REFLECTION - "Unless, of course - Unless Christ's washing the disciples feet, their dirty toes, means what it possibly could, mean: that it is all right to be human. That God knows we are human, and full of evil, all of us, and we are his people anyway, and the sheep of his pasture." - Annie Dillard HYMN 478 You Satisfy the Hungry Heart (Voices United)
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