May 7, 2017
William G. Carter
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 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. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved
Easter was a few weeks ago. A good case can be made that it was a lot longer ago than that. The further we get away from the empty tomb, the more the hallelujahs begin to fade. We can keep singing, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” but we all know it didn’t happen today; the resurrection happened a long time ago. The glad shouts, the astonished wonder, the primal fear turned to reverence – all of it can fade as time rolls along.
It reminds me of a conversation between a little girl and her mother. A week or so ago, they were driving around town and passed a church on a busy street corner. The church had put up banners to advertise and attract visitors for the Holy Week worship services, and nobody had taken them down yet. The little girl said to her mother, “Is Easter still going on?”
Luke, the Gospel writer, says, “Yes, it is.” In his second book, the book of Acts, he gives two pieces of evidence. We heard the first last week: the proclamation of the Gospel, the ongoing message that even though the world crucified the Son of God, he has been raised up from the dead. That sin, as with every other, has been forgiven and taken away. God is stronger than the powers of destruction. God’s love is stronger than death. The church keeps proclaiming this for all people, and so Easter is still going on.
And the second piece of evidence comes in the brief paragraph that we heard a minute ago: the forming of a community of Christians. The summary sounds familiar: they gathered for teaching and fellowship, they broke bread around the table and offered up prayers, they shared their lives with one another and ate a lot of food (that detail is repeated, probably for good reason). Easter is still going on, as Christian people come together and stay together.
In fact, the attraction was so strong that they literally did share everything that they had. There were no private possessions, for all things were considered group resources. It was the opposite of the consumerist individualism that all of us know so well. In our day, every home has its own lawn mower, its own microwave, with a television in every room. Imagine people sharing everything in common!
A few years ago, I was in western Pennsylvania. As we drove north from Pittsburgh on I-79, we saw the exit for Zelienople and I said, “Let’s turn off here.” You take a left at the bottom of the ramp, and a right about a half mile down, and you’ll find yourself in downtown Harmony, Pennsylvania.
There’s not much left in Harmony, but there is enough to let you know it was real. Harmony was one of the original planned communities. Lead by a man named George Rapp, Harmony was intended as a community just as it sounded, a place where Christ was proclaimed as Risen Lord and everybody got along. They got along so well that “they sold all their possessions and distributed the proceeds as any had need.” Just like the book of Acts!
It’s one of the curious chapters of American church history. Harmony was a utopian community, where daily life was intended to draw from the life of the earliest Christians. There were community meals, community Bible studies, community farm work, and nothing held back from the life of the whole group. That community flourished and grew to about eight hundred people. It became so profitable that they sold the town to the Mennonites for an enormous profit, and then moved to western Indiana where there was more elbow room. Again they stayed there ten more years in a town called New Harmony, sold off the town for an even larger profit, and then moved back to western Pennsylvania to create a town called Economy.
The whole enterprise continued until 1905, about a hundred years after its beginning. During that time, the community produced high quality cotton and wool, ran mills for grain and lumber, maintained a significant brewery and a productive winery, built a library and ran a large community orchestra. But alas, some of them fell under the spell of a rival preacher and that splintered the group. Some of the younger members of the group also took issue with the expectations for celibacy, an expectation that had the unfortunate effect of keeping the population small and elderly.
Is it possible for Christians to live together in perfect harmony? I guess it can work for a while. Think of it as a rehearsal for the kingdom of God, where people shall come from east and west, north and south, and break bread with glad and generous hearts at the same table. Let this begin with the Christians and spill out into the world.
Some would say this is unnatural, that it’s every person for themselves and survival of the fittest. But those are not Gospel values. “Survival of the fittest” is a biological observation of natural selection, not ever a Christian social policy. Jesus healed those who were sick, whoever they were, regardless of their pre-existing conditions. He fed the multitudes without knowing everybody’s name. And when he put together a movement, a Gospel movement, he called together twelve very diverse disciples to form a community. The assumption, I believe, is that these very different people have to keep working out what it means to flourish together.
And that’s why the earliest Christian scriptures single out two sins that can destroy human community. One is greed, excessive greed, the kind of greed that says, “I’m going to benefit at everybody else’s expense.” Did you know that, in the New Testament, greed makes all the lists of those sins that put people on the highway to hell? And given the shortness of our lives, greed is really a form of foolishness. In the words of a country music song, “I Ain’t Never Seen No Hearse Pulling No U-Haul.”
The other community-busting sin is indifference. “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or sick or in need, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Indifference. Indifference looks at a widow and says, “She’s not my mom.” Indifference looks at a struggling child and says, “He’s not my kid.” Indifference looks at a man who has just lost his job and says, “We will pray for the best.”
Greed and indifference – those are the ways of a world that put Christ on the cross. But Jesus is risen from the dead! He is among those who continue the Word and work that he has started. He offers an alternative to selfishness that infects us all. It is possible to have a new kind of life, and it is a life together.
Look how Easter continues. Here are people who gather to keep hearing the Word of Christ, and then they care for one another. They look out for one another. They help one another. They share what God has given them with anybody who has needs. And they do all this in ways that give others dignity, not to merely give the hand-out, but to actually lift people up. They give life, in the name of the One who is alive.
So when we come to this Table today, we gather at the invitation of Christ who is alive. We come hungry, but we know that the food and the justice we gain at this Table are not for us alone. We come because the promises of green pastures and still waters are a promise for all. We come, because thanks to Jesus, the Risen Lord Jesus, we continue to learn that life lived together with an ever-expanding circle of Christian friends is eternally better than the folly of going alone.