5 May 2013
“‘Those who love me,’ [said Jesus], ‘will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our dwelling with them.’” (John 14:23) In the name …
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the wide-open discussions we’ve been enjoying in our Bible study group this year. We’re reading Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. This was written about half way through the first century of the Christian era, only about 20 years into the life of the church. The earliest church was just this roil, this churning, of spiritual enthusiasm. Mistakes were being made, but more often than not Christianity was being formed, and it was being formed from the bottom up. I think the ones who have been coming to Bible study are getting a better feel for the fact that the earliest church was charismatic, that it was based on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Different members, any member by the way, for the earliest church said that in Christ there “is no longer Jew or Greek, male or female” (Gal. 3:28), any member could be a possible conduit for what the Holy Spirit had to say. This was messy, but extremely powerful.
Baptism was thus the great equalizer in the church. Every Christian was called a saint. Every Christian was respected as a part of the people of God, the body of Christ. But the earliest church was far from homogeneous and bland, and the Spirit made sure of it. For the common good, says the Bible, some were given the grace of wisdom, others of healing, others of prophecy, some were named apostles, some teachers, and some leaders. (1 Cor 12: 4-11, 27-31) These graces and charisms percolated up from the community of all the believers. These weren’t named from above; these manifested themselves from below. And the community was the judge. The community regulated itself.
This is extremely clear in the part of Second Corinthians that we are reading right now in Bible study. Paul is ticked. He is not at all happy with the way things are going in the church he has organized in Corinth. But Paul doesn’t write and complain to some named pastor, priest or bishop, and that’s because is there is none. Paul, instead, writes to the community itself. His arguments are based on the power of his preaching and the strength of his own example. He actually ridicules the ones who rely only on their titles as the basis of their authority. He actually comes up with the derogatory term “super-apostles” for the ones who have nothing else to rely upon except their titles.
Do you know that the Internet has been around for 20 years now? While the government and telecommunications companies were trying to figure out how to build this thing from the top down, it built itself from the bottom up. The universities that developed the first stage of the Internet made a conscious decision 20 years ago to not patent the technology. That move freed up all of the creative imagination and technical skill of every computer geek, business person, artist, student, whoever, and that’s the power that created the World Wide Web and everything on it today. And that was the same kind of excitement that enlivened the earliest church when she was 20, that was the kind of energy that built the church from the bottom up. That’s the Spirit-filled church that we’ve been talking about in Bible class. That’s also the church that gets called into the principal’s office, if I can say it that way, or the one that has to go defend itself before the Jerusalem council, if I say it more traditionally.
I do not have the time here, but I’d love to see more of you at Bible class a week from now so that we could discuss the Jerusalem council that we read about in today’s Lesson. This was not a clergy conference. This is earlier than the distinction between laity and clergy. Presbyters are not priests; they’re elders. Their claim to office is age and the possibility that they had seen and heard the historical Jesus. At the head of the council was not Peter, but James, and this isn’t James the apostle, but James the brother of Jesus. In Jewish tradition, authority was passed on through the family, just like Jewish kings passed on their authority to their sons, so James was chosen to lead because he shared a family relationship with Jesus. Jerusalem and this council were the symbolic center of the Christian church. But even more important than this, is that this council got it wrong. James and the council tried to build the church as a sect of Judaism. They didn’t like the bottom up changes that were emerging in the church and they tried to stifle them with top down authority, but they failed. The church, however, continued to grow and change in spite of them.
Christianity is not a faith imposed, but rather embraced. It is a rejection of the rigidity of the law and an endorsement of the freedom of the Spirit. Jesus says to us today: “‘Those who love me will keep my word.’” It’s not commandment; it’s relationship. We have to first love Jesus before we can ever try to follow Him. The law doesn’t care about love. It cares about obedience. But Jesus doesn’t see faith in the top down terms of law and order. For Jesus faith emerges from below. This means faith and church will always be in flux. Faith and church are both urging us to move forward to an ever better relationship with Jesus, so change is just as necessary in 50AD as it is in 2013 AD.
Listen again to Jesus today: “‘[The Spirit] will teach you everything …’” (John 14:26) This is the empowerment of every believer. God speaks to each of us and it is the community’s responsibility to make it all coherent. When God speaks through all of us it is not babel; it is gospel; and that’s the job of the church. That’s our job. We have been given the authority as individual believers in the community of the church to determine and live the gospel; and that’s not imposed from above, it comes from within each of us and among all of us. That’s when church is exciting, when it moves beyond the obedience of law and embraces the challenge to speak and act for Christ in the world out of love. That we may find again the excitement and the commotion of a bottom up faith in Jesus, for this we pray in His name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo