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
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