On a lot near our home, Kerry and I have been watching builders put up a new house over the last year or so. It’s fascinating to see a plot of land go from green grass to a hole in the ground to bricks and mortar to a home. A few weeks ago I asked the foreman if I could take a look around, and he was kind enough to give me a tour. The walls and doorways at that point were just framed out. I could see a general outline of how the house will look once it is complete, but at that point I could walk through the walls just as easily as the doorways. The entire home was semi-permeable.
Another kind of home is being built in the passage from John we hear read this morning. As the latest of the four gospels, John’s community was struggling with a home being torn apart. The early followers of Jesus were not well received in the temple and their hurts and angers are easy to read between the lines of John’s gospel. But, before we join in with centuries of Christians who have taken these words as a judgment against the temple and the Jewish faith that made its home there, we should consider that Christianity has been similarly hostile to Islam and Mormonism and any other faith that has claimed our scriptures as their own, while asserting a new revelation and a new way of life with God. Homes under construction may be semi-permeable, but completed homes – or temples, or churches, or mosques – tend not to be.
And so doors swing both ways, letting people in and letting people out, and John’s gospel appears to be playing with this ambivalence as well. Verse three of this chapter reads, “he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out;” and verse four continues, “When he has brought out all his own…” These words sound safe and careful, yet a form of the same verb showed up just one chapter earlier in John, in the story of the man born blind whom Jesus heals by the pools of Siloam – a story we read during Lent just a few weeks ago – when he goes and presents himself to the officials in the temple. We remember the irony in that story, as the man born blind tries to explain to the religious authorities what they seem unable to see, that in Jesus there is healing and new life. And as a result, it says, “they drove him out.” Leads them out, brought them out, drove him out.
It’s a study in contrasts. Which one of these is not like the others: leads them out, brought them out, drove him out. And contrast is what all of our texts this morning are pointing our attention toward. The passage from Acts, which tells the story of the community that grew up around the apostles after the crucifixion of Jesus as the shape of new life in God says that,
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 and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:44-47)
As eager young believers, we liked the story. But the next part puzzled us. The new Christians in Acts hung around Jerusalem: “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.”
One skeptical teenager pounced on the youth pastor: “This is in the Bible? They sound like Communists, not Christians!”
The minister assured him that early Christians were not Communists. “The birth of the church was a very special time,” he said, “different from the rest of history. God marked that occasion with strange signs that witness to God’s power – like miracles and the sharing of property. After the book of Acts ends, these things cease and Christians form a more normal kind of church.”
The look on my friend’s face said it all: Whew! Capitalism was safe from apostolic interference. After this Acts stuff, we could get back to normal.[i]
It’s a study in contrasts. What kind of people would these followers of Jesus be? What kind of communities would bear his name? The kind that lead people out, or that drive them out? The kind that share the gifts of God with any in need, or the kind who hoard the gifts of God in case future need should strike them? The door swings both ways, and over the course of the next two thousand years, so have the followers of Jesus.
For the last 143 years, Lutheran Social Services of Illinois has been living into the vision of the church described in the second chapter of Acts, asking the question “how does the church care for people in need in our community?” Starting with its first orphanage on the prairies of Illinois in 1867, Lutheran Social Services of Illinois has grown to become one of the state’s largest providers of social services to people of all ages, races, incomes and religions; serving nearly 70,000 people in 83 locations across the state.
Today LSSI provides adoption, foster care and pregnancy services; counseling and crisis intervention for children and families; counseling for people living with mental health and substance abuse issues; ministry to people in prison and their families; community services, nursing, assisted and supportive living options for seniors and disabled persons, and much more. Their work is funded in various ways, including government contracts that recognize the vital work LSSI does in supporting the many different communities that make up our state, but as always, their work is supported by people like you and me, through the offerings we give each Sunday as well as sp
ecial appeals and designated gifts.
For many years St. Luke’s has given 10% of all offerings to the Metropolitan Chicago Synod as mission support for the work of the wider church. Beginning this year, we have raised our level of giving to 11%, and we have set a goal for ourselves of raising our giving an additional 1% each year for the next four years until we arrive at 15%. Of the mission support that we give to the synod, 55% goes on to support the work of the national church – including its domestic and international hunger, malaria, immigration and relief services – and an additional 17% goes back out into our communities in the form of synod grants to agencies like Lutheran Social Services of Illinois.
This is one of the ways that the church in our time has tried to live out the ideal of the Acts 2 church. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…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.”
It’s a study in contrasts, because the acts of the apostles do not fit with how the world generally encourages us to act. We are taught to work hard, save what we make and take care of our families. But the witness of the early church was that people withdrew from the relentless work of empire building and invested their time and attention in one another, that they gave away what they had, and that they considered everyone a member of their family. They were the people of God, all of them, and all of us, and anyone who would come. The house was still under construction, the walls and doorways only just beginning to get framed out, and you could walk through them in either direction.
In Jesus, God was standing in the center of this house without walls, calling to the whole world by name in tones we first recognized in the sounds of our mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and neighbors, inviting us to see the whole world as such. Jesus was not inviting us to choose a religion bearing his name over the religion in which his mother had raised him. Jesus was inviting us all to see clearly the contrast between the world as it is, and the world as it was in the beginning and as it will be again in the end, when we are all gathered under one roof, sharing one meal, praising one God in many different languages, with many different songs, who goes by many different names but who knows each of us by our own.
As you see the contrast, as you hunger for abundant life, here and now, then step through the doorway. The risen Christ, the new life found in community, is still being built.
[i] Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 65.