Sunday, May 31, 2020

God's Complete Salvation

May 31, 2020 – The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of this service can be seen here. (Sermon starts around 29:45.)

Today is Pentecost. It’s the fiftieth day of Easter. We’ve had seven weeks to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. We’ve heard stories of the risen Lord’s encounters with the disciples—how he showed himself to them and encouraged them to carry on in his name. We’ve seen him ascend triumphantly into heaven, yet, when today began, we found ourselves right back where we started—in Jerusalem, huddled together with the disciples, including some of the women, in an upper room, unsure of what to do next. And then it happened.

From heaven above, there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the house where they were sitting. The Holy Spirit, manifested as tongues of fire, came down and alighted on the disciples. Each of them was filled with the power of that Spirit, and they all began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability. It was a strange sight and sound to behold. When the residents of Jerusalem heard the commotion, they ran to see what was happening. When they saw and heard this group of Galilean tradesmen speaking in their own native languages, they couldn’t believe it. They couldn’t explain it. Amazed to the point of disbelief, those in the crowd could best make sense of what was happening by saying that these men must be drunk. That might not make a lot of sense either, but how else would you explain how a bunch of uneducated, barely literate fishermen and net-menders had figured out how to speak fluently in all the languages of the known world?

But Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, had a different explanation: “Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” According to Peter, if we want to understand what happened at Pentecost, we should look at that day’s events through the lens provided by the prophet Joel, who himself had made sense of another chaotic moment in Jerusalem’s history.

Joel wrote about a great calamity that befell God’s people. A plague of locusts, brought on by a terrible drought, descended upon the land. “What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten,” the prophet wrote. “What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.” So thorough and complete was the destruction that the people of God had no way to understand it except as divine punishment for their misdeeds. In fact, the catastrophe was so great that successive generations reinterpreted Joel’s words as a timeless depiction of trouble for their own day. What was once an army of locusts came to represent an army of soldiers, and, by the time Joel’s words get to us in their present form, the fall of Jerusalem at the hand of the Babylonians had been woven into the prophet’s account.

But Peter didn’t choose Joel because of its depiction of destruction. It’s what comes next that got Peter’s attention. From the rubble and stubble of a total loss rose a new chapter of prosperity for God’s people. As the prophet declares, “[God] is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” The prophet explains that, because of the people’s repentance, God became jealous for the land and had pity on the people. God sent them grain, wine, and oil—a plentiful harvest so that they might be satisfied. No more would they be a mockery among the nations, for God had brought forth their vindication. But, even then, the prophet wasn’t finished, and neither was Peter.

What makes Joel distinct among the prophets is his understanding that God’s reversal of the fortunes of God’s people was a sign that God would one day bring about a total and complete reversal of human history. If God would intervene and save God’s people from near total destruction, then God will eventually work that salvation to its complete and perfect end. And, for Joel, the sign that God’s ultimate saving work had come to the earth was what Peter recognized in the moment of Pentecost: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”

When God’s Spirit is no longer reserved for kings and prophets but is poured out upon all sorts and conditions of people—men and women, old and young, slave and free—it means that God’s work of salvation is nearly finished. When ordinary folk like Galilean tradesmen are filled with God’s power, it means that the ultimate vindication of God’s people has drawn near. When Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, stood up to preach the first-ever Christian sermon, he proclaimed that the death and resurrection of Jesus were signs of God’s great reversal and that the sending down of the Holy Spirit was evidence that the final moment of God’s salvation had come to the earth.

Given this divinely inspired moment of multilingual prophecy, we might think that this is the moment when God’s salvation, which stretches to the ends of the earth, comes to us as well, but that wasn’t what Peter had in mind because that’s not what the prophet Joel foresaw. The time will come, a few chapters later in Acts, when the good news of Jesus Christ is proclaimed to the Gentiles as well, but, first, salvation and vindication must come to the people of Israel. Those who were gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost were represented by all of those different languages, but the text makes it clear that they were all Jewish—either by birth or by conversion. When Joel wrote about salvation coming to all who call upon the name of the Lord, and when Peter expanded that understanding of name to include the name of Jesus, both envisioned God’s deliverance coming exclusively to the covenant descendants of Abraham.

For the rest of us, this moment means something quite different. For Joel and for the preacher who quoted him, the coming of God’s Spirit signaled a troubling end for the other nations of the earth. According to the prophet, Egypt and Edom, Tyre, Sidon, and Philistia—all who tormented and oppressed God’s people must have their evil deeds turned upon their heads. Those who sold God’s people into slavery and captured their gold and silver will themselves be ransacked and made captive. As a great reversal of Isaiah’s peace-filled prophecy, Joel instructed God’s people to beat their plowshares back into swords and their pruning hooks back into spears. We don’t talk about it very often because we don’t like to hear it, but, in order for God’s complete and perfect salvation to come to the earth, those who were oppressed must be vindicated, and those who were the oppressors must be held accountable. Peter wants us to see that truth unfolding at Pentecost.

Pentecost was a moment when God’s Spirit came to earth and filled the disciples with a new and unfamiliar power. It was a power that neither they nor the world had ever known before—the power of God poured out indiscriminately upon God’s people. That power meant that God’s work of salvation was coming to its fruition, but the Spirit didn’t give the apostles the power to make the world right by pretending that everything was ok all along. Instead, it was the power to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus as the moment when the whole world was called to account and judged by God. Those who called upon God’s name—no matter what language or dialect they spoke—would be saved, but those who had mocked the name of God by unjustly imprisoning God’s people and robbing them of their God-given inheritance would be condemned. When God’s Spirit begins speaking like that—through ordinary men and women whom the powers of this world would normally ignore—we had better sit up and take notice.

In God’s perfect time, salvation will come to all people, but for some of us it starts in a different place. For most of us in this church and this community, the path to salvation must begin with recognition and repentance. By sending the Holy Spirit, God has brought the power of God’s ultimate vindication to the earth, but it isn’t we who need vindicating. Those of us who own property, who amass wealth and share it with our children, and who can, without hesitation, count on the officers in blue to defend us and our property—we aren’t the ones who need the powers of this world to be turned on their heads before we can be saved. What we need is to be saved from the powers for which we are responsible. Recognizing that and repenting of the self-preserving systems that we have created is how we leave behind the identity of the oppressor and, by God’s grace, are brought into God’s fold.

We must remember who it is for whom our savior died. The coming of the Holy Ghost has made that clear to the whole world. In Jesus Christ, God has reversed the fortunes of all people. If God’s salvation is meant for us as well, we must change course. We must leave behind the world we know—the world that feeds our egos and fills our pockets—and embrace the reign of God, where the poor become rich, the prisoners are set free, and the oppressed are liberated from their oppressors.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Ascension Day: Does A Body Good

Ascension Day - May 21, 2020

So where did he go? Where did Jesus go when he ascended into heaven? Aren't you a little curious? Doesn't your twenty-first-century mind and its scientifically-educated perspective make you want to know where Jesus went? In Acts 1, Luke tells us that the disciples watched as he was lifted up and taken out of their sight. Does that mean, as is often depicted in artistic representations of the Ascension, that he rose higher and higher and higher until he blipped out of sight? And, if so, how high did he go? Anything above 26,000 feet won't provide enough oxygen to sustain human life. Or maybe you think Jesus vanished the way Obi-Wan disincorporated and became one with the Force. Or maybe you think the resurrected Jesus was more like a ghost than a person. Or maybe you think the whole Ascension Day story is just a metaphorical ending appropriate for the narrative of Jesus' life.

I don't know for sure, but I'll tell you what I believe and why I think it matters. I believe that Jesus physically ascended up into the clouds beyond the disciples' sight and was taken in bodily form to whatever realm or plane of existence where God dwells. Where that is or how we get there doesn't really matter to me, though I don't blame anyone for wanting to know. What matters to me is the fact that it was a physical ascension, and it matters because my hope depends on a body.

When I hear Christians talk about heaven or eternal life or the resurrection, most of them talk about those things as if they were a purely spiritual reality. Think about what words of comfort come most naturally to you when speaking to a friend about the death of a loved one. "She's in a better place now." "He's up there with Granny and Gramps." "She departed this world so that she could be with the angels." This is understandable given the ravages and struggles of life--especially old age. If you have cared physically for a dying relative, you know how hard it is for everyone. It is natural for us to think of heaven as somewhere that doesn't have the same corrupt physicality that this world has. While it is true that heaven is a place without corruption or suffering, it's also a place where bodies matter.

When God made the universe, God saw that it was good. When God made humankind in God's own image, God saw that it was very good. The nature of the created order was marred by sin--depicted as the moment when our primeval parents ate the forbidden fruit--but the restoration of what is fallen is not the escape of the physical order but the renewal of it. We do not hope to escape the physical reality we know. In fact, who we are is fundamentally physical. You are not yourself--you cannot be yourself--without your body, your mind, your brain. We may not know how it is possible for the resurrection to be a physical existence in a universe that is unable to persist forever, but the Ascension of Jesus--wherever he went--is a testament to our future physical resurrection.

In this time of pandemic, however, I am reminded that the physicality of the Ascension gives us hope in another important way. The Ascension is a necessary consequence of God's ultimate vindication of Jesus. When God raised Jesus from the dead, God reversed the world's condemnation of Jesus. The world would expect that one who was condemned, suffered, crucified, and executed would be the recipient of God's abandonment and rejection. In Jesus, God shows us that the opposite is true. More than that, God uses the suffering of Jesus to redeem the world and to give us hope not by allowing us to escape our own suffering but by inhabiting it alongside us. 

The one who suffered on our behalf has ascended into heaven, where he sits at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us. Because he remains incarnate--because he is beside God in bodily form--the marks of that redemptive suffering remain in the sight of God. In a real, physical, tangible way, Jesus brings the fullness of our own suffering into the realm where the acorporal God exists.

We need to know that the suffering we endure is not a sign of God's rejection but a means by which God is brought near us. We need to know that our struggle is not empty or meaningless. We need to know that there is something better in store from us than an abandonment of the life we have been given. We need to know that the hope God has given us is more than a metaphor. We need to know that Jesus ascended into heaven to be that hope for us.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Ascension Eve: A Timeless Ending

May 20, 2020 - Eve of the Ascension

Every good story needs a good ending, but every true epic needs to go on forever. I don't really know if that's true, but I do know the difference between finishing a book or a movie and feeling the satisfaction of a well-wrapped-up, clearly-concluded narrative and coming to the last episode of a beloved series or finishing a classic novel and experiencing the strange combination of heartache and hope that the story and its characters might continue even if there is nothing else for the viewer or reader to see. For example, I love Lonesome Dove, but I haven't ever wanted to read or watch Return to Lonesome Dove. I'd rather have a connection with what wasn't written but lived on in my heart and my dreams. This is Frodo Baggins climbing into the ship and sailing off to another realm. This is Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer continuing their friendship beyond the view of the cameras.

The last episode of Elijah's prophecy, which we read in 2 Kings 2, is one of those moments. In the repetitive, tedious, tension-building sequence that starts the chapter, we read about the prophet and his protégé, making their way to the Jordan. For the entire chapter, both we and the characters know that this will be the end. Elijah's opening words encourage Elisha to stay behind because the end is already set: "Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel." But Elisha will not stay: "As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you."

At each stage of the journey, the prophets who lived along the way come out and say to Elisha, "Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away?" And each time Elisha responds, "Yes, I know; keep silent." There is more than a suspected inevitability. Everyone is aware of what must happen. And yet there is such uncertainty in the unfolding of the text.

Will Elisha stay with his master? Will Elijah grant him his request? Will the younger prophet persist with his tutor long enough to receive the promised spirit? What will that mean for Elisha? Will he become even half as great as Elijah? What will this mean for the ongoing battle between faithful prophets and faithless kings? There is so much more that must be told, yet we know this will be the decisive end of an era.

In the end, when the time came, the chariots of Israel came down from heaven and took Elijah away from the realm of mortals and transported him to the realm of God. It couldn't have been told any other way. Elijah's legendary encounters with God and with God's people needed to live on not only in the hearts and minds of God's people but actively in their experience. It would not be enough for Elijah to lie down in his bed and rest with his ancestors the way nearly every other biblical figure had. We need to know that, even though Elijah had died, his work, in a sense, is not finished yet. Physically and spiritually, this continuity is represented by the prophet's mantle, which falls to the ground and is picked up by Elisha. It becomes the instrument through which God's power is channeled now through the younger prophet. It is the sign that Elijah's spirit has been shared with his student. 

Tonight, we prepare to celebrate the difficult, strange, and powerful ending of Jesus' earthly ministry. We may pretend again each Eastertide that the risen Jesus walks on the face of the earth, but Ascension Day isn't an annual reenactment of Jesus' disappearance into heaven but our renewed proclamation that his power and presence lives on beyond his physical presence on earth. It couldn't have ended any other way. In the Acts of the Apostles and in the annals of Christian history, just like in the Book of Kings, the narrative continues with new actors, but their power is drawn from the one who came before. At this point, my literary analogy breaks down. Those continuations aren't sequels in the sense that the first story has ended and the second picks up where it left off. The first story carries on in unwritten, unobserved ways, while the new one draws its power from what continues to unfold off the page or screen. Elijah's spirit is given to Elisha. It doesn't die, but his time on earth must end. Jesus' spirit is given to the disciples. He lives on in them in ways more significant than their memory. 

Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Resurrection Is Our Everything

May 17, 2020 – Easter 6A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be found here. Video of the entire service can be seen here (sermon at 25:15).

When the Senior Minister of the downtown Methodist congregation in Birmingham, Alabama, was asked to give the invocation at the commencement exercises of Birmingham-Southern College, he was both honored and delighted. His daughter was one of the students who would walk across the stage. He was an obvious choice not only because he was a proud parent and an alumnus but also because Birmingham-Southern is a liberal arts college affiliated with the United Methodist Church. When he was given instructions on how the day would go, however, the Methodist minister was a little perturbed to learn that his invocation was supposed to be non-sectarian. Despite its Methodist roots, the college wanted to respect the diversity of religious traditions that would be reflected in the audience that day. Given the requisite political correctness, the minister wondered aloud whether he should begin his prayer by saying, “To whom it may concern…”

The apostle Paul had a similar reaction when he was walking around Athens and stumbled upon an altar that had been dedicated to an unknown god. How could anyone worship an unknown god? How do you address a deity in prayer when that deity’s identity remains unknown? We might dismiss such an altar as evidence of a baseless religion, but Paul saw it as an opportunity to engage the Athenians in a conversation about faith.

“I see how extremely religious you are in every way,” Paul said as a form of flattery. Though his words contained no small amount of irony to a faithful monotheistic ear, Paul used the Athenians’ religious impulse as a starting point for his argument. Like every civilization in history, they used religion to structure their lives, to establish societal norms, to give meaning to inexplicable realities, and to provide direction and purpose for their existence. In Paul’s mind, the existence of an altar dedicated to an unknown god wasn’t a sign of the Athenians’ faithlessness but, on the contrary, of their extreme religiosity. Religion, after all, is a search for answers to life’s universal questions. Like everyone else throughout history, they wanted to know what was good, to know that good would ultimately triumph, and to know that, when it did, they would be found on the winning side. And, to be sure of it, they had even built a shrine to an unknown god.

To win them over, Paul didn’t discount their religious impulse. Instead, he redirected it. He made his case for the God of Israel by focusing on what he had in common with the Athenians. “From one ancestor, [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth,” he told them. “[God] allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for and find [God]—though indeed [God] is not far from each one of us.” With those words, Paul celebrated the universal human search for the Creator of all things. To underscore the commonality he shared with his audience, Paul quoted not the Hebrew scriptures but Greek philosophy and poetry: “In him we live and move and have our being” and “For we too are his offspring.” If we are all children of the one Creator, Paul argued, then we all must share a common origin and a common purpose.

Paul saw in the Athenians the same religious impulse that had propelled the people of Israel to a covenanted relationship with God. Like his own ancestors, the Athenians wanted to know what was virtuous and to know that ultimately virtue would triumph and to know what constituted a life of virtue. The Athenians were willing to search for that virtue anywhere, but, for Paul, that virtue not only had a name but had proved itself beyond all doubt.

As Paul himself had discovered on the Road to Damascus, the resurrection of Jesus Christ had changed everything. Before the resurrection, God had made all the peoples of the earth but had chosen to reveal Godself to Abraham and his children. Yet, even from the beginning of that covenant relationship, God let God’s people know that they had been chosen to reveal the light of salvation to all nations. Now that God had raised Jesus from the dead, that purpose had been fulfilled. In the resurrection, God had revealed to the world God’s ultimate victory over death and had brought the light of salvation to the whole human race.

As Paul understood it, because of Easter, there is no longer any reason to wonder where good is to be found. Because of the resurrection of Jesus, there is no longer a question of whether that good will win. For Paul, this was very good news indeed, and he wanted to share it with the Athenians. “So far, God has overlooked the times of human ignorance,” he explained to them, “but now [God] commands all people everywhere to repent, because [God] has fixed a day on which [God] will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom [God] has appointed, and of this [God] has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” In other words, because of Jesus and his resurrection, we know for sure that one day God’s goodness will triumph. There’s no reason to search any longer, Paul said to the Athenians. You can stop offering sacrifices to unknown gods. Now is the time to repent and embrace the God whose identity and victory are certain.

But, when they heard it, most of them were unconvinced. When Paul mentioned the resurrection of the dead, he lost his intellectually astute audience. Some of them scoffed. Others gave the polite but insincere response, “We will hear you again about this.” Only a few—Dionysius and Damaris and a few others—were open to his words.

Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us, here in a city of higher education, a center of philosophy and intellectualism, that building an argument upon an empty tomb isn’t an easy way to win converts. In fact, it’s probably easier to obtain affirmative responses by appealing to the least common denominator of goodness and hope and humanity. But aren’t we hungry for more than that? Don’t we want more than a twenty-first-century equivalent of an altar to an unknown god? Surely people are looking for something more concrete than the collective best intentions of a society that can’t figure out how to balance economic concerns with the health and welfare of its workers. Don’t we need to know for sure that, in a world where evil and greed and violence so often win the day, God will, in the end, make all things new and right and perfect?

We need the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus isn’t a sign that God has the power to bring the dead back to life. The empty tomb isn’t supposed to give us a glimmer of hope that we’ll get another shot at life when this one’s over. It’s a sign that evil cannot win. It’s God’s declaration once and for all that, no matter how strong the evil powers of this world may become, God’s victory will always be stronger. Jesus wasn’t resuscitated. He was resurrected to a new and different kind of life—a life where God’s goodness is complete. When the risen Jesus met the apostle Paul on the Damascus Road, Paul got a glimpse of that new life and the world that was inaugurated because of it. After that, nothing else mattered to him. He had seen the fullness of what was possible with God. From that moment forward, he knew with every fiber of his being that, in the resurrection of Jesus, God had changed everything for the better.

The empty tomb isn’t part of the Christian faith. It’s the whole thing. It’s how we know that justice will win. It’s our confirmation that righteousness will triumph. It’s where we find the answers to the deepest longings of our existence, and it’s where we give ourselves back to the God who satisfies our greatest hunger. We believe the resurrection of Jesus not because it makes sense but because without it we cannot make sense of the world.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Mother's Day Murder

Stephen had a mother. So did Saul. On Sunday morning, when we hear the story of Stephen being stoned to death by the angry mob and are told that the onlookers laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul, I bet our minds and hearts will be somewhere other than the scene of that execution. We may not be in church. We may not be able to take our mothers out to lunch. But surely we're thinking about Mother's Day and not the martyrdom of St. Stephen or the violent persecution at the hands of St. Paul.

Some of us didn't know our mothers. Some of us are pained by their memory. Some of us have always wanted to be a mother but haven't been able to. Most of us knew and loved our mothers and were known and loved by them. Plenty of us have buried our mothers. Some of us are in the process of saying goodbye to mothers who are the victims of dementia or illness. No matter what, all of us had a mother.

This Sunday is Mother's Day, but it won't get much special attention in our church, but, as I read the lesson from Acts, I am drawn to the fact that both of these men--saints of the church, who both eventually gave their lives in witness to Jesus Christ--had mothers, yet, as Saul looked on while Stephen was stoned to death, that commonality must have been far from his mind.

The story in Acts wants us to recognize that the anger of the crowd was in direct proportion to the testimony of Stephen: "'Look,' he said, 'I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!' But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him." By that point, Stephen had spent a good bit of time explaining the story of salvation as it evolved throughout the history of God's people and led to Jesus. If you go back and read the rest of Acts 7, you'll see that the crowd is angry at him, but it is this last moment, when Stephen says that he can see the Son of Man at God's right hand, that their anger boils over to a murderous rage. The more Stephen spoke and the more conclusive his testimony became, the more enraged the mob became. Once they perceived him as irreconcilably different, other, blasphemous, they killed him.

Sometimes that happens to people. Sometimes the otherness of someone becomes so complete and total that their life is perceived as a threat to our own. In our sinful and enraged minds, their life becomes anti-life. They are no longer individuals with a different opinion or a different identity. We think of them as a threat to our very existence. And sometimes, in a murderous rage, we extinguish their life because we think that will help protect ours.

I don't know much about the circumstances surrounding the murderous lynching of Ahmaud Abrery, the unarmed black man whose death at the hands of a white father and son in Georgia has (finally) received the attention of the nation, but it feels a lot like anger, power, and prejudice, which become racism. That becomes murder at the hands of difference, which is unfairly, unjustly, and sinfully perceived as a threat. Somewhere Ahmaud's family, including his mother, is mourning the death of a son and calling for justice. And somewhere the family and mothers of those who committed the act are worried about what will happen to their sons. But that truth wasn't operative in the moment of the killing.

Think of the person who most threatens you and your way of life--not the actual individual but the concept. Who is it? Is it a terrorist? A murderer? Someone who persecutes you and your community because of your faith, your ethnicity, or some other part of your identity? Some of those people are real threats. There are people in the world who want to kill others simply because. I'm not suggesting that we give up self-protection, though Jesus did and that's another post. But so often what we think of as a real threat isn't all that real. It's just difference. It's just otherness. It's a separation we allow to grow until it feels as if it threatens everything we stand for. But even that person out there--those people who represent complete otherness to us--they have mothers, too.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

All Things In Common

May 3, 2020 – Easter 4A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here (sermon at 19:50).

“All things in common.” Our reading from Acts tells us that the early Christian community was so fully united in heart and mind that “all who believed were together and had all things in common.” Imagine that. When someone joined the church, they would sell all that they had and give the proceeds to the common purse so that the shared resources of the whole community could be distributed according to everyone’s need. No one was left out. There always was enough to go around.

This is as much a theological statement as an economic one. Imagine what it must have required of every participant to let go of the concept of what’s mine and what’s yours—what I brought to the table vs. what you brought—in order that they might hold all things in common. Much has changed over the last two thousand years, but one thing that hasn’t changed is human nature. People were just as greedy, defensive, selfish, and untrusting back then as they are now. The Bible wants us to recognize how strong and real the faith of the early church was, and it wants us to wonder why the same isn’t true anymore. When did the church stop requiring all of its members to liquidate their assets for the sake of the Christian community? When did that become the particular characteristic of monastic communities and not the whole church?

Whenever it was, it didn’t take long. I can’t even get “all things in common” to work for my family. I wouldn’t dream of trying that with our congregation. Is your family any better at that than mine? This time of physical distancing has given us the gift of lots of extra time together. Does anyone think that’s made it easier for us to be of one heart and mind and checkbook? In our house, we can’t plan a menu or choose a common activity without provoking a fair amount of grumbling. Can you imagine what would happen if we let all six members of our family have a vote on what we spend our money on?

This phenomenon isn’t unique to the pandemic, of course. How many marriages fall apart because of money? Or maybe a more precise way to say that is how many relationships use money as a currency to weaponize their brokenness? Newlyweds often make even the smallest financial decisions together. In many cases, that’s out of necessity—when even a cup of coffee from Starbucks may upset the budget. Later on, though, spending often becomes spiteful or a source of fear. Will she find out what I’ve bought online if I have it sent to my office? He left me at home with all the kids while he went on a ski trip with his buddies, so I think I’ll help myself to a nice new necklace. If the two who have become one flesh can’t figure out how to align their hearts and their pocketbooks, how in the world did the big, messy, diverse Body of Christ ever make it happen?

The answer is repentance. By that, I don’t mean saying sorry after the fact. I mean turning around from the life you would otherwise build for yourself and embracing a life devoted to God and to the community of faith. That’s repentance, and it’s the kind of transformation that’s only possible with God’s help.

This moment in Acts 2, when we read that the believers held all things in common, comes at the end of a long progression that we have been making our way through this Easter season. Although we won’t hear about it for a few more weeks, Acts 2 begins with Pentecost, when the power of the Holy Spirit comes upon the apostles. Then, Peter confronts the crowd of “fellow Israelites” for their role in condemning Jesus to death. “Know with certainty,” he says to them, “that God has made him both Lord and Messiah—this Jesus whom you crucified.” In response, the crowd is “cut to the heart” and asks Peter and the other apostles what they should do. Peter’s reply? “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Three thousand persons were added to the Christian community that day, and that’s the moment when we are told that they had all things in common.

All of those things go hand in hand—repentance, baptism, forgiveness, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. They are the foundation not only of the Christian faith but of the common life that grows from that faith and that makes it possible for us to hold all things in common—our hearts, our minds, and even our treasure. Repentance isn’t merely saying we’re sorry for the sins we commit—like the selfish expenditures we try to hide from our spouse. It’s turning around from the self-seeking tendency that lives within all of us and resetting our life’s compass according to God’s way, God’s economy, God’s vision for our common life. In Acts 2, Peter wasn’t asking the crowd to repent of driving the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet but from their failure to understand that the Way of Jesus and its repudiation of earthly power was, indeed, the Way of God and the path into God’s reign. When they do that and exchange their own worldview for that of God by being reborn in the waters of Baptism, they receive the animating power of the Holy Spirit, which enables them to do what would otherwise be impossible—to belong to the kind of community that holds all things in common.

Lately, socialism has become a word that either rallies fervent support or sparks vehement condemnation. But, if you think about it, those who embrace it and those who reject it do so for the same reason—greed. Socialists want to pull resources together to make sure that greedy capitalists don’t deny the working class their basic necessities. And anti-socialists argue that greedy decision makers can’t be relied upon to distribute those resources as efficiently as a capitalist system. We can’t work out our differences because we think that repentance is always someone else’s problem. If only they would get their act together. If only they weren’t so selfish. If only they would do their fair share. If only they cared half as much about others as themselves. But the truth is that we’re all sinners. We’re all selfish and greedy—none of us any more or any less than everyone else. It’s just that we like our brand of selfishness better than other people’s. If we’re going to be the community of faith that holds all things in common, whether it’s in our church or in our homes or in our country, all of us need to repent of our own selfishness and ask God to give us the help of the Holy Spirit.

Imagine how quickly and fully our church would grow if we believed that the power of God made it possible for us to have all things in common and be sure that no one’s needs were left unmet. People are hungry to be a part of a community made up of individuals and families who care more about others than themselves. They are willing to give their whole lives to such an endeavor. Imagine how beautiful your marriage, your family, and all the relationships in your life would be if you believed that the power of God made it possible for you to give up your claim on what’s yours and trust that giving yourself over to the cares of others would bring you your best life. Imagine how wonderful and respectable our nation would be if the people of this country believed that the power of selfless love made it possible for all of us to let go of our own particular agendas and embrace the goodness of our common welfare. Imagine it. Imagine all of it. It’s all possible, but it must begin with you and your own repentance.

We don’t always have to agree with each other. Later in Acts, we read about a moment when the apostles disagreed passionately over the issue of Gentile conversion. But they were still a community that held all things in common because their one heart and one mind were filled and guided by the one Spirit. If you want to be a part of that kind of community—if you want your life and your relationships to reflect that unity of identity and purpose—then repent and return to the Lord. Ask God to take your will and make it one with God’s by giving you the Holy Spirit. Make that part of your daily prayers, and God will make it possible.