Easter 4: Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2: 19-25, John 10: 1-10
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…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…
So – what the hell happened? Luke’s description of the early church, after the disciples’ baptism in the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and Peter’s surprisingly fearless sermon, is certainly a rosy one. Where is this church, because I want to go there?!
Perhaps Paul’s account of the struggles at the church in Corinth better match our own experience of the church in North America. Paul’s eloquence in his reflections on the cross of Christ, on his resurrection and on Christian love shine sharply, like the clarity of light before an approaching storm, amidst the sordid reality of Corinth’s church.
Was the early church at Jerusalem ever as Luke describes it? There is little doubt that the event at Pentecost was a radical moment, transforming cowering disciples into bold apostles willing to risk and indeed give up their lives for the sake of practicing and sharing the gospel. Could it be that in the glow of its baptism in the Spirit, the church got it right to begin with? Is it a case that inevitably once the rose faded we were left with thorns to contend with? Or is it a case of our wanting to take control of the process again, like in the garden at the beginning? Is Chesterton right that the Way of Christ has been found difficult and therefore left untried?
Or is Luke describing what he perceives is Christ’s hope for his church – the way we are to be together for the sake of the world so loved? This is after all where Paul is encouraging the flock at Corinth to go (even if Luke’s description was written after Paul’s). And it is this text that reached out two thousand years later to animate a congregation I was a part of on the secular rim of the Pacific Northwest, seeking to discern what a church is to be. It is here we rediscovered the ancient five marks of the church: kerygyma (proclamation), leiturgia (worship/prayer), koinonia (fellowship), diakonia (service) and didache (training). We marvelled at the way the marks intertwined with one another and found them to be trustworthy guides to who we were called to be. They now form the foundations of the conversations the church has with itself and others. It is, at least, a firm beginning post Christendom for relearning who we are to be.
The other texts for this fourth Sunday in Easter, traditionally Good Shepherd Sunday, lead us to the Way forward into God’s future as glimpsed in the Acts text. Psalm 23 is written from the perspective of the sheep. It can remind the church that it is not the shepherd but rather the company of those who recognize our need for and follow the shepherd that is Christ. We must be willing to be led. And the direction we are led is into Good Friday, through the valley of the shadow of death, into the suffering of the world, through the crucified gate that is Christ. In our baptism we give up our self-determination, our striving after power and control and agree to become like sheep, listening only to the voice of our crucified and risen Shepherd
(John 10:1-10). Or perhaps we do not so much choose to become like sheep as we recognize that we are sheep. Which is not really a compliment. Sheep are vulnerable, easily led astray and, given the chance, will overeat to the point of death. Sheep inherently need a shepherd. In choosing Christ as our Shepherd in baptism we choose to become part of the company of followers who do not return abuse with abuse, who do not threaten when made to suffer, who entrust ourselves to the one who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23). Because our Shepherd has gone before us and is with us we are called to fear no evil, going where others fear to trend, following where Jesus is leading us (because it is not about what Jesus would do but about what Jesus is doing), nourished by the bread of his body and the wine of his blood.
May it be so, for the glory of God.