sheep gate

Coming In, Going Out

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 2:36-47
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

Theologian David McCarthy, in a recent book on the Communion of Saints, puts forward the notion of “social desire.” “Our social desire,” he writes, “is our desire for shared life. It is a desire for a meaningful life. It is a desire and hope that my everyday endeavors do not stop with me, that who I am as son, brother, friend, father, theologian, neighbor and coach does not end with how it makes me feel…” Rather, he avers, social desire seeks connection with others in a metaphysical framework that orients us socially, makes us whole in community.

The Communion of Saints, he claims, embodies the kinship, with others and God, that grounds us cosmically. McCarthy’s words seem to me an explication of these terse few lines from Acts 2, which describe the openness and sharing of the post-Pentecost church. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all each according to each one’s need.”

If social desire is so basic, and Luke’s church embodies it so well, why do I find it so difficult, sitting or kneeling or standing in church of a Sunday, to open myself to God and fellow members?

To give one example, recently our priest had us up before the congregation as a family to receive a blessing on the occasion of the birth of our son, Benjamin. It wasn’t spontaneous, and I was somewhat familiar with the liturgy from the prayer book. Throughout it, I had the experience of being somewhere outside of my skin. “Act prayerful!” It was that desperate voice inside my head that kicks in when I sense I don’t feel the way I ought.

Perhaps a reason for this difficulty of full participation in worship is the sense we may have of our possible abandonment by others in our congregations. We ourselves (the Ryans) recently announced to our fellow church members that we will be moving to another city, so I can take a job I have been offered. The job is a great blessing, and answer to prayer – especially to me personally, I think, given the trajectory of my career as a theologian, for I have had only part time work during the past two years.

When a man about my age, who also has young kids and with whom I’ve had some good, deep, conversations during coffee hour, confessed to me after the announcement that part of him was having difficulty being glad for us, I failed at first to notice the depth of what he was getting at. I later realized that I, too, am experiencing a kind of alienation from the folks we have worshipped with for two years—who have loved and supported us well—in light of the coming separation. I sense that the challenge here is to genuinely share in this blessing, and avoid the kind of zero-sum competitiveness (of blessings!) that naturally arises. Perhaps I need to be more aware of the miraculousness to be found in the very attempts, as with the man above and several others in the church, to confess the mixture of friendship and alienation they really feel on hearing of our blessing.

This struggle between communion and withdrawal in our experience of church, perhaps gives rise to the temptation to interpret Acts 2:42-47 abstractly, as either clear political directive or panacea for theological quagmires. How often does our uncomfortable ambivalence lead us to turn this description of sharing into a buttress for a left-wing (or, right wing) political program? Or, how often do we sound out “the church” in order to resolve disquieting puzzles about how to be faithful Christians in this time between the times?

What then is the church, and how does it relate to McCarthy’s notion of “social desire” ?

“I am the true Shepherd…”

Augustine, in his Sermon on John 10, unsettles the at first glance comforting images of the church as sheepfold guided by her Shepherd. He first notes that, in the passage, recognition of the shepherd’s voice seems to be part of the very definition of “sheep.” But, Augustine-like, he is called and troubled by another voice in the scriptures: “The wandering sheep have ye not recalled.” (Ezekiel 34:4). How, he wonders, can a sheep be a “wanderer”? It would seem that a wanderer means someone who follows the voice of another. But “those that came apart from me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.” Thus, as we pray with him through his exegesis, we are left with a true puzzle: “Lord, if the sheep did not hear [the thieves and robbers], how can the sheep wander?

Augustine begins here to describe the ambivalence and complexity of the church in a disquieting way. She harbors those who have heard the Shepherd’s voice, and then wandered away to untruth (i.e., heretics.) She also contains many who hear and follow, but will later fall, failing to endure to the end. God may need the church…but the church is a mess. No wonder self-consciousness sometimes gets in the way of my giving myself whole heartedly to God and my pew mates during (and after) worship.

Augustine turns here to God’s freedom, expressed in his choosing a people to be his own. It is not, first of all, that we know or recognize God, but that God knows (and chooses) us. Herein lies our salvation.

Next, he turns to the verse, “Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” To “come in” (to the fold or the church) is not an end for itself. It is an end for others, for “going out,” so that the life of faith may operate through works of love. Further still, in the words “abundant life” Jesus refers to a more ultimate destination. “[Those of faith] go out who, enduring unto the end, pass out by this same door, that is, by the faith of Christ; for as true believers they die, and will have life more abundantly when they come whither the Shepherd has preceded them, where they shall die no more.” The fold or pasture of the church, then, points toward and is a vehicle for what is beyond even it.

As McCarthy notes toward the end of his book on the saints, that further and abundant destination, life in God’s company, may itself have much to do with ‘social desire.’ For, as our theological tradition has it, this God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is constituted by social relations. May we, then, as we struggle faithfully in the fold, catch restoring glimpses of how these two pastures—here in the fold of the church and ‘there,’ where those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled—may be integrally connected for us, and in us.

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