Saturday, May 10, 2014

May 10, Easter 4, Community of Jesus #2: Sheep and Saints

Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10 

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 55: What do you understand by "the communion of saints"? First, that believers one and all, as members of this community, share in Christ and in all his treasures and gifts. Second, that each member consider it a duty to use these gifts readily and cheerfully for the service and enrichment of the other members.
On the other side of that wall is a great big sanctuary. We used to worship there, until some plaster from the ceiling fell.

That seems so long ago. There are church members here who have never worshiped in our sanctuary. We have members who have never heard Aleeza play the pipe organ. How long will it take us to get back in there? How much money should we spend on it? Should we just make it safe again, or make it splendid again, or maybe give it up?

We have some big decisions coming. Right now we are designing a process of discernment for the congregation. You’ll learn more about this pretty soon. We want our process to be spiritual and our decisions to be guided by our mission. Part of my job is to remind us of our mission. That’s why I am preaching this sermon series on the opening phrase of our Mission Statement, and I’m asking our scripture lessons every week what they can tell us about the Community of Jesus.

This week two things. Our first lesson describes the first community of Jesus, two months after his resurrection, right after Pentecost. We will come back to this. Our second lesson and our gospel lesson compare the community of Jesus to a flock of sheep. The gospel lesson is in two parts. The first part is a parable — a depiction of an ordinary village sheepfold, with a wall, a gate, and a gatekeeper. Every morning the shepherds all come to fetch their own flock from out of the common herd, calling them each by name, and they follow the voice of the shepherd they know.

The second part of the gospel lesson is an application of the parable. Jesus says, "I am the gate," and he expands on that. He will make two more applications in the verses which come right after our lesson for today, verses which we will read a year from now. So actually the application of the parable is threefold: I am the gate, I am the good shepherd, and I lay down my life for my sheep. In our lesson next Sunday we will hear him say something similar: "I am the way, the truth, and the life." I am the way: I am the gate. I am the truth: I am the good shepherd. I am the life: I lay down my life for my sheep.

But frankly I don’t want to be a sheep. I don’t like to think of myself as a sheep. Neither do you. You do like the shepherd side of the parable, but the sheep side not so much. Everyone loves Psalm 23, The Lord is my shepherd, and you’re fine with Jesus applying that metaphor of divinity to himself, but for your totem animal you would not choose a sheep. Isn’t a sheep a stupid animal? Isn’t the iconic innocence of lambs a function of passivity? Aren’t domesticated sheep helpless without human care? Is that the point? For you to know the truth about yourself you have to see yourself in terms of this unflattering metaphor. The insult is intended and instructive. Accept it.

There is something just as unattractive in our second lesson, in the very first sentence. Frankly I don’t want to endure pain while suffering unjustly. Neither do you. You want to fight back. You want to ease the pain. If you’re sufferin’, you want a Bufferin (Carole King). The lesson suggests passivity and surrender in the face of trouble. Like with sheep. And if he’s such a good shepherd, then why am I suffering?

But actually the lesson is describing something active. The pain and suffering are the by-product of doing the right thing in a tough spot, of voluntarily doing the right thing even when you know you will not get rewarded for the right thing, and even punished for the right thing. This takes moral courage, especially not to fight back, unless your fighting back is only to keep on doing the right thing time and time again. This also takes freedom, a deep inner freedom.

Freedom is not natural. It’s a gift and a treasure for us to shelter and nurture and honor. I was talking to one of our Sunday School teachers about the frustrations of teaching the children of Park Slope who are over-stimulated and over-obligated. The teacher said that her whole attitude changed one day when she realized, from what one kid happened to say, that that kid did not have to come to Sunday School — that that kid was perfectly allowed to stay home if he pleased, but that kid freely chose, on his own, to come to Sunday School. Wow. Precious.

Freedom is not infinite or absolute. Secular freedom has boundaries and it is properly resisted by laws and contracts, the rights of others, physical realities, scarcity, gravity, and taxes. You exercise your freedom against those resistances just as you exercise your muscles against the resistance of your elliptical machine. Christian freedom has its boundaries too, and what properly resists your Christian freedom is the community of Jesus. Freedom and community: dialectical, contradictory, inextricable. You exercise your Christian freedom into the productive and strengthening resistance of the community of Jesus.

You can keep your Christian life a private thing and individual, but then you will not gain the moral strength of it. The Christian life is a communion: a communion with God through the medium of Jesus, and then by extension from that a communion of saints. A flock of sheep, yes, but also saints. You are both of these, at the same time, from God’s point of view. The compliment is intentional and instructive. Accept it. You need to be in this communion because you are a sheep, and you have freedom within it because you are a saint.

This takes us back to our first lesson, from the Book of the Acts, about the very first community of Jesus. "They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." Every church has to do those four things: teaching, fellowship, bread-breaking, and prayer, and do them in several combinations. Today we’re looking at the second thing, fellowship. The Greek word is koinonia, which you can also translate as communion, community, commonality. That first community of Jesus was very communal: they "had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need."

Their primitive communism was a wonder and a sign. It was not meant as a law for us, and the apostles never expected it of their later congregations. How could they, when so many of their converts were slaves who had no property and women with no right to property, and very little freedom; all they could share was themselves, if they could risk getting away for a couple hours once a week at night. That was part of their suffering.

That communism is not a law for us, but it is an enduring sign for us, a sign of both judgment and invitation, to make you wonder, always, about your own life, and your own independence, and how you exercise your freedom as a Christian, and your freedom with your treasure and your gifts. The question is not whether, but how much. How far? Do you give of your gifts and treasure to the community to risk your own financial suffering and pain? I would not. But it might mean you give enough to put at risk your independence and your pleasures.

Of course I’m talking about money, and even time, and your talents, and your skills and expertise, but more important is your personality, your personal vulnerability, the gift of your self, your history, your emotions, your troubles, your triumphs, your suffering, your story. Your story is the most important gift we want from you, and then after that, your questions, if you honor the questions of others and their stories as your own.

Your own personal story is part of the very long story of Old First, but more important, your own personal story is part of the story of Jesus in the world. Do you want us to know your story? Maybe. Are you open to learning the stories of others? "Well, okay, but can we keep it to like a dozen? What does Christian love require of me? I’m not interested in a commune. But I’m open to being challenged and expanded." I believe you are.

Why did you start coming here? Not to maintain an old historic church, and not to fix up a sanctuary. You came here to get closer to God, you came here for yourself and your own interests. But the more you are here, the more you are here for the other people who are here. It’s not all pain and suffering. It’s the slow development of love. You practice your love and you rehearse your love, both giving and receiving it. You make mistakes. You practice it again. You always start by believing that God’s first gift to you is God’s own love for you.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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