Family Snapshots: A Caring Community (Psalm 133; Acts 4:32-35; John 17:20-24)
The Sunday after Easter (technically called the Second Sunday of Easter) is usually a bit of a let-down. We showed off all the lilies and heard the wonderful anthems that our choir sang, and heard words about the Resurrection of Jesus. But that was last Sunday. How do we go back to more ordinary things today? Well, the fact is, we really don’t, or aren’t intended to, at least The Easter Season runs fifty days, from Easter Sunday through Pentecost (pentekosta is the Greek word for “fifty”). During this period the Revised Common Lectionary gives us a reading each week from the earlier parts of Book of Acts, which tells how the Holy Spirit was active through the Apostles (especially Peter and John) among the early community of Jesus’ followers as it went out from Jerusalem into the wider world. The Book also tells how faith in Jesus became inclusive of more and more different folks, not just those with a background in Judaism. Acts tells the earliest stories of the transition of faith in Jesus from a local Jewish sect, to an odd part of Judaism, into a world-religion, as it is today. These stories from Acts for Easter are not arranged week by week in the order that they occur in the Book of Acts, and I look at them as rather a number of snapshots from the Christian family album. Today we have a story from very end of Acts chapter 4, which we read a little bit ago, and we’ll get to that, but first, a word about the other lessons from Psalm 133 and John 17.
Remember that all through the Lenten Season we spent time talking about covenant, which I defined as a way of allowing non-family members to relate together as family. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, he validated that New Covenant about which the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah spoke. The Christian family album is made up of those that are covenant-members of one another. Family, in this sense, is another way of thinking about covenant partners. We start with our Old Testament Lesson from Psalm 133, the title of which is “A Song of Ascents,” and, along with the 14 psalms around it, is, in the view of most scholars, songs that pilgrims sang when they came from “wherever” to Jerusalem, which was “home.” The Psalm is full of ancient language about oil running down the beard of Aaron and the dew on Mount Hermon, and that’s not easy for us to understand. The Psalm does use a wonderful term for those with whom we share the community of faith – literally, it’s brothers. That term can be misunderstood to be less inclusive than it would have been in the ancient world, and certainly than I want it today, so we might want to translate the idea by the simple word of kindred or family. We are, most of us, not physical family, but family as bound together as God’s people. We are kindred who “dwell,” or, more literally, “sit down” together in unity. Here we are, sitting together, covenant-bound to one another, and we treat one another as family. And that’s one of our aims at First Baptist. The psalmist wrote that the outcome of that is both good and beautiful. The part about oil on Aaron’s beard speaks of soothing oil that helps with hurts. The dew of Hermon talks about life giving moisture in dry places. Together with our family in God, we find good and pleasant company, not to mention healing and sustenance when we need them. We learn to support one another in the family, especially in those places that are irritated and sore. We learn to hold together in those times that are dry and desolate. When one suffers we all share it, when one rejoices we are all a part of it. This kind of community honours differences, weaknesses, and doubts. We don’t require uniformity, where everyone is the same, but celebrate unity, where we all care for one another because, as we sang, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.” We could think a long time about this little wisdom Psalm, but that will do for this morning.
The other readings this morning tie into what we have found briefly in Psalm 133. Both the Gospel and Acts Lessons are stories that tell of how the early church found its centre in community and care of one another in an open and inclusive way. The reading from John’s Gospel is a little piece from a much longer passage that is usually called Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer.” The literary setting of this prayer is in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, on that last night Jesus spent with his covenant family before his trial and crucifixion. This title “high priestly prayer” is appropriate because, the way John tells it, Jesus is praying as one who is aware that he is truly a high priest for this little community of followers. As I’ve said to you before, in Latin a high-priest is a pontifex, literally, a bridge-builder. It is across the bridge Jesus builds with his own life that people and God are united as family, as one together. In this little piece of text that we read this morning, Jesus prayed, not only for the original disciples that were there with him, but for those who would come to faith through their witness, those to whom John is addressing his gospel, and all who follow them. The first generation is not the only one that has intimate fellowship with God in Christ, but all are included, all are important. The door is wide open. At the core of this prayer for those who will come to follow Jesus later (including, as it seems, us today), is Jesus’ great desire that all these disciples will grasp that they are one with one another because they are one with Jesus who is one with God. To translate this into the terms of Psalm 133, Jesus prayed that his followers will understand that they are family together through God in Christ. The way that others will know that God has sent Jesus into the world is through the lives lived by disciples. Or, again, in those words we sang earlier, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Folk who are seeking to find their identity in this world will find it in Christ as they see and experience God’s love in the fellowship of God’s people.
Sometimes this call to the community of faith in Jesus has been misunderstood as being all about preaching and talking people to death about religious stuff inside the four walls of the church, without any practical sense of what needs to be done out in the world where the action is. Here is where the Acts lesson comes in to show an example in a snapshot of Jesus’ family loving in action. The community of Jesus is known as a caring community, by its care one for another: one of our congregational values, by the way.
As Psalm 133 and John 17 have both spoken of deeds of love and mercy towards one another, Acts chapter 4 can help us catch a glimpse of the breadth and inclusion of the caring community here and help us to move from just saying words to doing deeds in mission. Our story for this morning actually began back in Acts chapter 2 at the Jewish Feast of Weeks, using the Greek name Pentecost for the feast rather than the Hebrew one. The feast of Weeks occurs fifty days after the feast of unleavened bread in the Old Testament, and, as I said earlier the Greek word pentekosta means “fifty.” At this feast Peter preached a powerful sermon. God’s spirit came upon people in a mighty way, and many became followers of Jesus and were baptised as such, as will happen in this congregation on the last Sunday of this month. We’ll celebrate Pentecost on the 20th of May. As a result of the presence of God (another way of saying “the Spirit of God”) coming in power, Acts 2 says that these new disciples of Jesus took care to learn about what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. They devoted themselves to learning from those who had been with Jesus, they devoted themselves to sharing together, as well as to observing the Lord’s Supper and praying together. It is still true that the inner life of learning and worship and apprenticeship in Jesus’ school may well be where it starts. These are, by the way, other values of FBC.
But, having said that, Luke, who wrote the Book of Acts, is determined to make the important point that it is the outward thrust of that inner life that is crucial. Without it, we are just so many “talking heads,” that are preaching to the choir, so to speak, and make no impact in God’s world. Our passage is an example from one early Christian community of such an outward mission being the result of the inner life of worship, care of one another, and learning and teaching. As we think about how community life was in this one Christian community of faith, I invite you to remember these words with the ears of those who have heard our other lessons: “Now the whole group of those who trusted (in Jesus) were of one heart and soul.” In other words, they knew themselves to be family who shared together and were one in the person of Jesus. What we read is that, in this particular situation, their kindred spirit worked out so that they shared their possessions with one another to the point that no one had need because they pooled their resources and took care of one another. I’ll never forget when, early in my ministry, I was teaching on this passage, and, rather than being encouraged by such an open caring for one another as is found in this snapshot of one Christian community, I was told that this was a dangerous passage because it didn’t seem to teach capitalism. I don’t really remember what I said, I just remember the discouragement. What I would say to us this morning is that we must learn to read the Bible as what it is. First, it is an ancient description of ancient things. The people who gave us the Bible had never heard of capitalism, socialism, or any of these words we’ve invented. Their social values were of a different type altogether. Second, this tells us a story of how one group of Christians lived for a while. It is not a series of commandments of how every community of faith must operate forever. It does point to one clear principle, however, and that is, when Christians do recognize themselves to be family who are together and are one together in God through Christ, when they do pay attention to Christian teaching, worship, prayer and practice, it transforms their lives in practical and social ways that impact their society and those “others” out there for good. They cannot help but translate their faith into deeds of love and mercy. Any faith that concentrates simply on religious experience, or learning, or worship, or piety, or evangelism, or to keeping pure doctrine (whatever that last one means), or any of these things and does not, in the end of the day, think creatively and, dare I say, entrepreneurially, about the practical implications of our faith, has not yet been grasped by the goodness and the beauty of sitting with our kindred. And, if God is the God of all the earth, our kindred are many, those we know, and those we don’t know yet. What is crucial for us to learn is that the inner heart that belongs to God in Christ, will, as it matures find its outlet in sharing practical expressions of love with the world. This snapshot of Christian community tells us that it is a sharing and caring community.
We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand,
We will walk with each other we will walk hand in hand,
And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land:
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
As we come to this Table of the Lord today, may it be as a family that shares together and in that sharing opens its hearts and its doors wide to sit in unity. Look at the snapshot of a caring community in Christ Jesus.
In the name of God; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.