15 Apr 2012
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” (Acts 4:32)
In the name …
One hundred years ago last night the Titanic struck an iceberg. The Captain called his panicked crew together and told all of them that they were only two miles from land. The crew thought they were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean so they got all excited and asked, “Which way?” They pointed hopefully to the East, to the West, to which the Captain replied, “Straight down.”
I’ve never found the patience to watch the entire Titanic movie, but I have seen the end when the ship goes down. I’ve heard Leonardo DiCaprio’s character force Kate Winslet’s character to promise to stay alive and to live for the both of them. I’ve watched as the elderly Kate Winslet character reminisced about how she fulfilled that promise by living her life to the fullest, by challenging the ordinary and expected, by pushing the boundaries of what she could do. The immensity of the tragedy and the singular death of her lover impacted the rest of her life. She lived every day after her rescue to the fullest extent possible, and all in his memory.
The very first Christians lived their lives to the fullest extent possible too. They weren’t concerned any longer about only making it in this world. After the resurrection they all of a sudden began to believe in something more. They challenged the ordinary and the expected, not in someone’s memory like Kate Winslet did, but through the power of the resurrected Jesus. The usual expectations for their lives were no longer enough. In the Titanic movie, Kate Winslet didn’t settle down. She did things that women one hundred years ago weren’t supposed to do. Her life had a different orientation than the ordinary because of one exceptional experience. Easter, that one exceptional experience, likewise, changed the first Christians and motivated their real-world choices because of the extraordinary experience of the resurrection.
That’s the basis of the story we hear today from the Acts of the Apostles. We’re granted a glimpse into the first community of believers; and what we see was as radical then as it would be today. The belief of those very first Christians wasn’t limited to worship. Their Easter faith changed the way they lived their lives. They sold everything they owned and threw the money into a communal pot. No one had more than another, and no one suffered from want. Their priority wasn’t fairness; it was charity. Those first believers in Jerusalem had their entire perspective changed in ways that are hard to explain except by the resurrection. They could no longer be satisfied by the ordinary. They had witnessed the triumph of Jesus over death and now life could no longer be defined by any normal expectations. Their world changed, and they wanted to change the world.
Now I have to let you know that this utopian experiment didn’t work out so well. What ended up happening is that the Jerusalem community became impoverished. Paul often talked about accepting donations from the far-flung churches that he was establishing all around the Mediterranean, and that he would take this collection with him back to Jerusalem. And the words that Paul used to describe the recipients of these donations were the saints and also “the poor” (cf. Rom 15:25-26; Gal. 2:10). So it seems the Jerusalem Christians gave up all their possessions and lived together in a communal setting, but this arrangement just made the whole bunch of them poor and dependent upon the rest of the church for hand-outs.
But I think we believers have thrown the baby out with the bath water. It’s apparent that the social experiment of those very first Jerusalem Christians didn’t work out too well, but we have also rejected their revelation of seeing the kingdom of God in this world, of not waiting to see it only in heaven. The Jerusalem Christians saw the resurrected Jesus come back to their city. He didn’t rush off to heaven. For them this revealed that the kingdom of God is also here on earth. Their particular efforts failed, but they at least tried. Too often nowadays believers and the church have given up on the world. We don’t often try to make difference; we just try to survive. We don’t think of society; we think of individuals when it comes to morality. The idea of us as pilgrims passing through this world has us waiting for heaven, but not believing that we can make life here substantially better. How many of us tend to think of that common phrase kingdom of God as having anything to do with the here and now? When we pray “Thy kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer, are we only talking about the end of time or should we be thinking about making this world better? If we substitute heaven for kingdom of God, have we abandoned our chance to change this world?
Easter Sunday’s newspaper ran a front section article about the fact that wages for workers over the past three years have increased by .4% while corporate profits have increased by 93%, and CEO’s compensation increased by 20% just last year. Churches seem to have no problem speaking out about what happens in the privacy of bedrooms, but do we dare speak out about what happens in public boardrooms? Have we limited religion to individual morality at the expense of the common good, and have we replaced efforts to build the kingdom of God on earth with talk only of heaven? Does the business section matter to the church? The Jerusalem church’s efforts backfired, but have we gone too far in the other direction and given up working for real progress here and now? Our Easter faith gives us the amazing gift of hope that life continues after death, but it should also give us the strength and conviction to hope that this life is part of the kingdom of God too. And for this we pray in the name of the risen Saviour. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo