Acts of the Apostles 2.42-47
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Here is a big question: How are human beings supposed to live together? We have been trying to figure that out since the beginning of civilization. Even in Genesis, the story of the Tower of Babel gives a mythic answer to the reason we are separated by various languages. But we need to go deeper than just linguistic differences. How are we supposed to live together? That is one of the questions that this story from the Acts of the Apostles tries to answer.
On a macro level, humanity has attempted different systems and responses over the last few hundred years that we in the 21st century assume is the way it always has been. And that’s not so.
At the end of the 19th century, after evidence for biological evolution had been presented, some began to say that we live in a dog-eat-dog world where the fittest survive, that is and ought to be true for humanity as well, and it birthed SOCIAL Darwinism. The poor in industrial England, the Irish, and child laborers who worked in dangerous conditions were thought to be where they ought to be: at the bottom of the food chain. A 19th c. English clergyman, Thomas Malthus, even proposed that “excess” human beings would die off so that others could survive. And haven’t we seen a bit of that Malthusian catastrophe proposed by some political leaders (who ironically also claim to be “pro-life”) that it would be okay for some of the elderly and infirm to be taken by Covid-19 and to make a place for the fittest to survive? How do you think God sees our society?
Economics is a relatively new field, and the Scotsman Adam Smith is known as the father of economics for his seminal book, The Wealth of Nations, which was published in 1776. And we he developed the ideas of capitalism and self-interest, and of course they grow into unfettered capitalism in the 19th and 20th centuries. You and I probably take it for granted that we are “consumers.” Stop and think about that…“consumer.” It’s one role in a mechanistic equation…and isn’t life more than that? Aren’t you also a “lover” or a “teacher” or an “advocate” or a “Christian” or a “parent” or a “sibling” or a “citizen”? Let’s pause for just a moment and reconsider the initial question: How are we supposed to live together? Are we supposed to consume materials and goods? Are we just cogs in the system of interconnected wheels in a stupendously large economic machine? How do you think God sees us?
Another vision is that we are meant to live simply as “free agents,” doing whatever we like in a “do your own thing” kind of way to nurture our self-satisfaction? Are we just out for ourselves (and maybe our nuclear families on a good day), or are we really a part of something bigger?
Throughout most of human history, the nature of living together in clans, communities, tribes, and nations has been survival…enough of the basic things like food, clothing, and shelter so that we could survive. And as civilizations and nations developed, the question of how we are meant to live together dogged us every step of the way. In Genesis when Cain kills his brother Abel, God asks where Abel is, and Cain famously replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And that is the big question: to what extent are we responsible for the well-being of the people who form our social grouping: towns, states, nations, regions. I think about that picture of the earth from space taken by the Apollo astronauts from the moon, and it is abundantly clear that our fate is inextricably bound together as residents of the same “big blue marble.” How do you think God sees us?
The Acts of the Apostles gives us insight into the way the first Christians answer the question of what life together ought to look like, and it may be a fairly idealized vision. “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 (in good social distance) and ate their food with glad and generous hearts (after washing their hands for a full 20 seconds), praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” This is a description of DISTRIBUTIVE justice, where people recognize that there really is enough to go around if we share what we have. It is a statement about profound abundance.
Have you ever noticed how many economic systems are based on fear and scarcity, rather than on generosity and abundance? We have so many refrains of abundance in the biblical record that we stop noticing them as such: manna from heaven, my cup overflows, the loaves and fishes…it’s all about God’s abundance.
Here is a question for you: when have you operated out of a sense of fear and scarcity, and when have you made decisions based on generosity and abundance?
The Acts of the Apostles describes a radically different vision that most of us Christians — even progressive Protestants — have of how things work today.
As the Second World War began and many German Christians accommodated, if not encouraged, the rise of the Nazi regime, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book called Life Together about what Christian community could and should mean. “In a Christian community,” he writes, “everything depends upon whether each individual is an indispensable link in a chain. Only when even the smallest link is securely interlocked is the chain unbreakable… Every Christian community must realize not only do the weak need the strong, but also that the strong cannot exist without the weak. The elimination of the weak is the death of the fellowship.”
I wonder how that plays out at Plymouth. Each of us is weak in some ways and strong in others. We are utterly reliant on God and on one another, and the sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner we will be able to live together in harmony.
What if we expanded that idea to the wider community? Six months ago, I rather doubt that some people would have counted grocery checkers and truck drivers and the UPS delivery guy as “essential workers.” And in some medical institutions, nurses are seen to exist in a stratum under physicians, but if you’ve ever been in the hospital, you know how critical they are in terms of your care, but they are unsung heroes. But then again, I haven’t seen military jets doing fly-overs to recognize hedge-fund managers and advertising executives lately.
How are human beings supposed to live together? I think we’ve been doing a pretty poor job in this country, but I have certainly seen glimmers of hope in the way neighbors support one another, younger members of Plymouth doing grocery shopping for elders, people wanting to reach out and contact other members with a call or a card or a text message. Please, let’s not let go of any of that pulling together when the pandemic is over. Let us continue to grow into what Dr. King called the Beloved Community and what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. These visions are far richer than anything Milton Friedman or Ayn Rand could have dreamed up, and they are infinitely better for the human soul.
Christian community at Plymouth is going to look different in the future in ways that we cannot fully imagine. We are likely to continue livestream worship, even after we can worship in person. For a long while, we may need have social distance in worship, adjust the way we greet each other and celebrate communion and have coffee hour. I have no idea when that will be, but I know that our sense of connection and love for one another has not been diminished by our physical distance.
Life together at Plymouth is going to be different, in ways that none of us can yet anticipate, but I do know it’s going to be rich. I have faith in God to show us how to be community, and I have faith in you to come together in faith.
We’ll do this together. May it be so. Amen.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
The images that are left in my mind following this week are different than they are most years during Holy Week. Normally, I would have images of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, the mock trial and beating at the hands of Pilate, the crucifixion by the forces of Empire.
And to be sure, those images were present with me as we walked from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday to Good Friday. But this year there were other images as well. Images of fire enveloping the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, flames licking the 19th century spire before it fell, spreading the fire along the roof covering the nave, and ultimately collapsing in on itself.
President Emmanuel Macron has promised that Notre Dame will be restored in the next five years, which is probably optimistic, though the moneyed families of France seem to be willing to part with millions to make it happen.
The fire at Notre Dame, apparently accidental, is manifestly different than the torching of African-American churches in Louisiana, which is being considered arson and a hate crime; and thankfully, money is flowing in there, too, to help rebuild.
So, in the course of this Holy Week, I was thinking about Notre Dame as an icon for Christianity as a whole. It made me wonder whether Christianity will go through its own version of Holy Week and Good Friday, dying back before it can emerge as a resurrected faith.
For 2,000 years the church universal has gone through repeated times of decline, retrenchment, and downfall, only to re-emerge in a new form. French Catholicism has been moribund for decades, and who knows whether the process of rebuilding Notre Dame will help the faith rise from the ashes…and not just the building. Certainly, stranger things have happened.
The church in our nation, too, is coming to a crossroads. The mainline church has been in decline throughout my lifetime, and though you wouldn’t know if from Plymouth’s experience, that regression has accelerated dramatically in recent years. And it isn’t just mainline Protestantism: Evangelical churches are also in decline, and the Roman Catholic church continues to be shaken to its foundations by the continuing revelation of clergy sexual-abuse scandals.
I wonder if American Christianity needs to experience a type of death in order to come into new life. That may be what is already happening nationally, and though you may not see it, we are not immune from this experience this in Fort Collins.
One thing I do know is that you can’t really understand the meaning of Easter Sunday resurrection without walking through the dark shadows of Holy Week and into the valley of the shadow of death on Good Friday. You can’t experience new life without first experiencing death. That may be where American Christianity finds itself today.
A favorite hymn in our church, “In the Midst of New Dimensions,” contains this line: “Should the threats of dire predictions cause us to withdraw in pain, may your blazing phoenix spirit resurrect the church again.” The Cathedral of Notre Dame, and the church itself, may indeed rise from the ashes.
But the cycle of death and new life isn’t just a sociological paradigm, it’s at play in each of our lives.
As we walk through life, we’ve all experienced the “small deaths.” When we are young, the first loss we experience may be that of a beloved pet or a dear grandparent. As teenagers, we may encounter a broken heart with the end of a first relationship. And then as we enter adulthood, we are introduced to a whole new range of losses: being fired from a job we love, the death of a parent, a divorce. And as we mature further, we are bound to encounter the hard diagnosis delivered by a physician, the death of friends and family, and the loss of physical and cerebral ability. Life doesn’t get easier as these losses begin to occur even more frequently. Ultimately, each of us will say goodbye to this world as we die into the next.
The Apostle Paul, who wrote earlier than any of the gospel writers, said that every day, we are dying and rising with Christ. “Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father,” Paul writes to the church in Rome, “so we too might walk in newness of life.” That newness of life is here and now…not just in the life beyond physical death.
In other words, death is never God’s final word with us. There is still more life to come.
Throughout our lives, there are forces around us that entomb us, not just through the little deaths I’ve described, but through the macro-events in the world. And those death-dealing forces, like greed, violence, self-centeredness, and fear can seal the tomb over us if we let them…and there are moments when that happens to each of us. But death is never God’s final word with us.
Somebody has to roll the stone away from the tomb with us, because none of us can budge those huge boulders on our own. The large stones of fear can keep us locked in a sepulcher of our own making. They can lead us into ways of thinking and of being that feel anything but life-giving. So, who will help us roll the stone away?
One of the essential functions of a church community is to be a group of stone-rollers. There are people in this congregation who not only have emerged from the valley of the shadow of death, but who are willing to lend a hand in rolling away the stone that is holding others in death’s dark bond. I see stones rolled away when a lesbian couple, turned away by others, finds a church home that loves them for who they are. I see stones rolled away when we open our building to 12-step meetings. I see stones rolled away when a grieving family is surrounded by the love and support of true intergenerational community. I see stones rolled away when a member’s fear dissipates because of a visit and a prayer before surgery. I see stones rolled away when our volunteers find ways to keep people from becoming homeless. There are countless ways that the people who form Plymouth help to roll the stone away, not just for people within our congregation, but in the community at large.
And so, this is an invitation to resurrection: I welcome you to become part of the movement that Jesus started and that continued after his crucifixion. I invite you to be part of this great sea wave of resurrection that sweeps people up together to become part of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed. I invite you to find your place of resurrection here at Plymouth, where you can be part of a community of belonging, where you can deepen your own spiritual journey while helping to roll stones away for somebody else.
There isn’t much in the news these days about hope or new life or new beginnings. Our nation is in a shadowy time…but death is never God’s final word.
The Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who lived through “the Troubles,” which, ironically, were settled by an agreement called The Good Friday Accord, wrote these lines:
Human beings suffer.
They torture one another.
They get hurt and get hard.
History says, ‘Don’t hope on this side of the grave,’
but then, once in a lifetime,
the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.
So, hope for a great sea-change on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a farther shore is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles and cures and healing wells.
That’s a promise of new life as well. It can be ours as a nation and as a world. It can be ours as a community of hope and faith and love and new life. It can be yours as someone who is God’s beloved. Death is never God’s final word.
That word — God’s ultimate word — is love.
May it be so. Amen.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Romans 6.4
 Seamus Heaney, from “The Cure at Troy.”
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
by Anne Thompson
Images we see --
black churches in hateful flames,
Notre Dame ablaze
dims the green spring grass.
Can we rise up from ashes?
comes to all of us --
the common lot in all life.
Every day we die.
Death dealing forces
can seal the tomb over us.
Roll the stone away?
Unseal our grief tombs?
We can be the stone rollers,
Roll the stone away
for those who are ill and weak,
for those who need food.
Hope for a sea change
believing in miracles,
In love and new life.
What is it you seek?
Death is not the final word.
Love is ultimate.
Help us bring the spring
after the winter darkness
which nurtured new life.
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