Sitting With Our Kindred
Holidays are very important times. In the church year the Easter Season lasts for the 50 days from Easter Day until Pentecost (which derives its name from the Greek word for fifty). In this time following Easter Day, the Great Church celebrates the implications of the fact that Jesus is alive and “Going ahead of us into Galilee” (Easter words at the Empty Tomb). So, it is not surprising that the scripture lessons today talk about some of the characteristics of communities that centre in God through the risen Christ.
To start with the Old Testament, Psalm 133 is a short wisdom Psalm that probably dealt, in its original form with the extended family of the ancient Near East. A family began with a couple and added in concentric circles children, grandchildren, parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and other folk that were added to the family. The basic assertion of Psalm 133 is right up front: “How good and pleasant (or beautiful) it is when kindred dwell together (or sit together).” In Hebrew the word “good” implies “appropriate to its purpose.” A family that dwells or stays or sits down together provides an appropriate context to live as God intended. Further such a condition is a pleasant or beautiful experience that “adds value” to life.
The psalmist, then, compares such family life to two things that, in that time and place, were considered both appropriate (good) and pleasant (beautiful). “Good family life is like this…” First, the psalmist said it was like soothing, comforting, refreshing oil that was poured in abundance on the head of an honoured guest (see Psalm 23:5: “You anoint my head with oil”). More than that, good family life together was like the heavy dew that fell on the slopes of Mt. Hermon, the highest mountain in that part of the world, coming to beautify and ‘green up” the dry summer landscape of the “mountains of Zion” around Jerusalem. In our culture, we might select different things that picture good and beautiful family life. What would you say? Good family life is like… what? What would you say? Think about it.
Now, the “kindred” of which Psalm 133 speaks as it exists in our Bibles, today, is not simply about single physical families. This psalm, itself, is included in a “family” of 15 Psalms (120-134), that have the title “songs of ascents.” The word “ascents” is sometimes used of “going up” to Jerusalem from someplace else. Many Old Testament scholars now conclude that these 15 psalms were intended as songs for pilgrims to sing as they were on their way “up” to Jerusalem, to their “family,” there, so that this word “kindred” probably refers not just to “blood” relations, but to covenant relations, and mean “God’s people.” We can surmise that, first, from what the psalmist said about that oil. It was oil flowing down the beard or chin of Aaron, Moses’ brother, the first High Priest of Israel. This identification immediately moves the context of the song to the dimension of what is priestly, and has to do with the family of God. We can also surmise that this psalm has to do with covenant kindred by the last line of the psalm that affirms that a life of God’s blessing is experienced “there,” which refers to “the mountains of Zion” in the verse just prior. The Temple was on Mt. Zion. As I said, this statement, too, moves the identification of “kindred” from our “blood-kin” to our “kindred together where God is.”
From the time of the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel, and the exile of the southern kingdom to Babylon, the Hebrews were scattered here and there throughout the world. It remained that way for centuries, down to the time of Jesus, and, really, to the present day. These Songs of Ascents have been placed toward the end of the Book of Psalms, and so give us the voices of that time when such scattered folks were actually looking for a way to find home and for a way to find their family identity and their sense of “place” as one people in a world of many peoples. When we’ve been used to thinking of ourselves as “God’s favourites,” it’s hard to find ourselves scattered among others. It’s hard to know it’s not “just us” in the world. That’s why many of the Psalms in this latter part of the Book affirm that God is the God of all peoples, not just us. The Songs of Ascent feel for home and family in that kind of a world. In such a world the psalmists affirm that pilgrims together in their journey are family to one another, and that it is an appropriate and beautiful thing for such pilgrims to sit together not apart.
As you know already, today, as Christians, we are also pilgrims who live in a world of many peoples, not just us. Christians are not the only religious people or moral and ethical people in the world, or even in La Crosse. Part of what we must do in this world is to search for home and family among our kindred. In a few minutes we will sing (as we do once per month): “Blest be the tie that binds, our hearts in Christian love, the fellowship of kindred minds, is like to that above.” The English poet William Cowper wrote lines that, set were to music and we sometimes sing as a hymn (or used to anyway): “Jesus, where’er thy people meet, There they behold thy mercy seat, Where’er they seek thee, thou art found, And every place is holy ground.” The words are archaic, but they affirm that God gives blessing when God’s people sit together in covenant.
Our other lessons make some similar or complementary points. They are parts of stories that tell of how the early church community found the centre of its family life in Christ, and expressed that central relationship in care of one another and others. The reading from John 17 is a little snippet from a long prayer he placed on Jesus’ lips in the Upper Room in Jerusalem before his trial and crucifixion. In this prayer, Jesus speaks as a priest, which is an intermediary. The Latin word for “priest” is pontifex, which literally means a “bridge-builder.” The image here is that Jesus builds a bridge with his own life that unites people and God as “kindred” (in the words of Psalm 133). In the little section we read this morning, Jesus prayed, not only for the original disciples that were there with him as his kindred, but for those who would come to faith through their witness. At the core of this prayer for those who will follow Jesus later (including, as it seems, us today), is Jesus’ great desire that these disciples grasp that they are one with one another because they are one with Jesus who is one with God. To put this in terms familiar to us from Psalm 133, Jesus prays that his followers will understand that they are kindred sitting together with and through God in Christ. The way that others will know that God has sent Jesus into the world, is through the lives lived by Jesus’ disciples. 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. Unfortunately, all this has sometimes been misunderstood to mean that disciples are people who talk others to death about religious stuff inside the four walls of the church, without any practical sense of what needs to be done out where the action is.
Here is where the words from John 20 and Acts 4 come in. Jesus clearly places the focus of his “kindred” outward. In John 20, he said, not once but twice, “shalom Aleichem,” Peace, wholeness, integrity be with you. Living in Jesus shalom means that there is no need of fear of being among others not like ourselves out in the world: “Just as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” Jesus sends disciples (and not just the twelve) to sow and plant his peace, his shalom, his wholeness, wherever they go. They have sat down together, and now they go out and understand that they are kindred with more than those who just look like, act like, talk like they do.
The Lesson from Acts chapter 4 gives us a specific example of how all this worked out, and can help us to avoid narrowness of vision and mission. The story began back in Acts chapter 2 at the Jewish Feast of Weeks, using the Greek name for the feast rather than the Hebrew one. In Greek this feast was called Pentecost (from the Greek word pentekosta, which means “fifty”), because it occurred fifty days after the feast of unleavened bread. 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. We’ll celebrate Pentecost on the 24th of May. After all that, 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 comes before anything else.
Having said that, however, it is important to see the outward thrust of that inner life in one early Christian community, and, as we remember the words we read earlier, I invite you remember with the ears of those who have heard our other lessons: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.” In other words, they knew themselves to be kindred who sat together and were one in the person of Jesus. What we read is that, in that 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. Some people, especially in the USA, have gotten very nervous when they’ve read these words, because they don’t sound very much like capitalism, but something different. Again, however, we must learn to read the Bible as what it is. First, it is an ancient description of ancient things. 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 kindred who sit 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 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.
The last stanza of that poem by William Cowper goes this way:
Lord, we are few, but Thou art near;
Nor short Thine arm, nor deaf Thine ear;
O rend the heavens, come quickly down,
And make a thousand hearts Thine own.
In the name of God; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.