Sunday, April 12, 2015

Living together in unity

A Sermon preached on April 12th, Easter II, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden

Acts 4:32-35, 1 John 1:1-2:2, John 20:19-31

Today is one of those days when we have the same Gospel reading every year. But so far at least, I have managed to find something new and different to talk about each time, and if you don't believe me, all my sermons are online so you can check! The aspect I want to talk about this morning is one that I think runs through all three readings and the Psalm: fellowship and community, particularly Christian fellowship and Christian community, though seen from very different angles and in very different circumstances. 

Let's start with what appears to be the biblical version of the Communist Manifesto and of the Socialist maxim: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Or in the words of Acts: “Everything they owned was held in common … and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:32, 35) I wonder how often this passage gets read at meetings of the Tea Party movement?

Of course we have to put this into perspective and context. Firstly it is a rose-tinted spectacle view back to the Golden Age of the Apostolic Church – back to that post Pentecost time when everyone flocked to hear the Apostles and the Church gained thousands of new members every time one of the 12 stood up and preached – I wish I could do that! Secondly we must also assume that many of the Christ’s followers were expecting his almost immediate return, so why bother keeping wealth and property anyway. And yet they are living out part of Jesus’ teaching. In Luke’s Gospel (14:33) – written by the same author as Acts – Jesus says for example: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” I would also claim that one source for the great power with which they are able to give their testimony and for the “great grace” that was upon them all is their unity – they were of one heart and soul, which is expressed so strongly in their sharing with and caring for one another.

The situation of the community that the author of the 1st Letter of John is writing to is very different. They are not of one heart and soul, in fact there had been a split and many have left his community in strife. The author criticizes those who have left for believing that all they have to do to be Christians is to claim to believe, without this impacting their lives and behavior, or even that just this expression of belief will stop them doing wrong or sinning. No, we cannot be in fellowship with God, he says, while walking in darkness; that is while not living a Godly life of light, faith and righteousness. And “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.” (1 Jn 1:8) Thankfully, as Christians, we have “an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 Jn 2:2) if and when we do sin and stray. To be a Christian means trying to walk in the light, acknowledging and confessing our own sins, not just identifying those of others, and living in fellowship with one another. Christianity is a communal faith.

And finally to the Gospel of John and to Jesus’s first two post-resurrection appearances to the male disciples – the women have already seen him. What unites them and makes them into a renewed or recreated community are: Jesus’ gift of God’s Peace, Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit through his own breath, spirit and breath are the same word in Hebrew, and the disciples’ common mission. They are both empowered and instructed to continue Christ’s mission of forgiveness and reconciliation, they are to represent him in the world.
But one disciple was missing on that first Sunday, Thomas, and so there was a danger that he would be excluded, and perhaps seen as second-class disciple, one to whom the Lord had not appeared in person and not only that, one who even dared doubt the word of the other 10 – carefully ignoring how they seem to have ignored the word of Mary Magdalene! But Jesus appears again in Thomas’ presence, and uses his request for physical proof not so much to rebuke or chastise him, but as a way of teaching all the disciples and all who hear and read his words, that is us, that it is never too late to encounter Jesus and that the faith of those who follow – all the future believers – is equal to the faith of the first disciples: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:29) All are equal members of the fellowship of Christ, our membership is based solely on our confession, in Thomas’ words, that Jesus Christ isMy Lord and my God.” (20:28)

Our own fellowship and community were one of the topics of our recent Vestry retreat as they were also topics at the small group meetings of last autumn of fall. Some of the questions we asked ourselves were: How can we balance old and new, how do we respect our differences, what does it mean to model Christian unity, what can we do to prevent us hurting one another, as we have done, how can we make sure we are open and welcoming and are not perceived as a closed group, and how can we make sure that we are aware of and dealing with people’s needs, both within and without these walls? I won’t claim we have all the answers – that is still work in progress – though one answer is that the Vestry itself must continue to try and be a model for Christian fellowship. This is conveyed in the Vestry Compact – our mutual expectations for communication and cooperation that we originally developed a year ago and reaffirmed this week. There’s a copy on the notice board at the back of the church or on the website.

Another answer is in this week’s readings, in the Bible’s teaching on fellowship and community. The Bible is always a good place to look for answers! The passage from Acts tells us that only a united Christian community is a strong community and one able to witness to Christ with great power. A visible sign of this unity is how we all share and help one another. The First Letter of John reminds us not to assume that the fault is always just the other’s, that we must acknowledge and confess and seek forgiveness for our own sins: both from God and from the person we have sinned against. The Gospel reading’s message is that our unity and community are neither self-serving, nor self-contained. Their purpose is to enable us to carry out and carry on Christ’s mission of healing and reconciliation in and to the world. Last and not least, membership in Christian communities is based solely on our common faith. All members are equal, there are no privileges for “first movers.” The minute someone walks through our door to join us, they are as much a member of this community as the person who's been here for 20 or 30 years, and his or her opinion counts as much as the opinions of those who have been here for 20 or 30 years. No idea is bad just because it is new, nor however is any concern bad, just because it is an old one or has been voiced before.

The psalm appointed for today, Psalm 133, is the psalm Dietrich Bonhoeffer cites at the beginning of his book on Christian community, Life Together”: “Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!” (Ps. 133.1) Coincidentally, or not perhaps, our church remembered Bonhoeffer as a “saint.” just this week, on Thursday. Bonhoeffer’s guidelines and principles for life together as Christians are praying, worshipping, working, and eating together, confessing to and forgiving one another, and never forgetting, that “we have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity.”[1] I said earlier that Christianity is a communal faith and the physical expression of our communal faith is Holy Communion, the meal we will share in amoment both with one another and with all Christians throughout time and space. As Bonhoeffer puts it: “The life of Christians together under the Word has reached its perfection in the sacrament.”[2]  

[1] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, (SCM Press, 1954), 14
[2] Ibid, 96

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