Second Sunday of Easter B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
1 John 1:1—2:2
As part of our Lenten discipline this year, I led a study titled Claimed, Gathered, Sent: A Guide for Conversation. It was a discussion guide produced by the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Reverend Elizabeth Eaton. On each Wednesday night during the season of Lent, we met and discussed five facets of our identity as the ELCA:
We are church.
We are Lutheran.
We are church together.
We are church for the sake of the world.
We are church along with our ecumenical partners.
The entire conversation revolved around the nature and purpose of the church: who are we? Why are we here? What is the church and what does it do?
It’s a question that has been a part of the church’s existence since, well, forever, but there are times when the church really calls its identity into question and has to figure out who and what it is.
According to writer and scholar Phyllis Tickle, this actually happens in the church about every 500 years. There are controversies and conflicts in the church all the time, but it seems that the major ones happen every half century.
It was about 500 years ago that the Protestant Reformation occurred, the start of which is traditionally dated to 1517. The Western church was no longer homogeneous, made up of just the Roman Catholic church. This was a huge shift in the way Christians understood themselves. No longer were states all united by their common Christian heritage and allegiance. A major identity crisis followed.
500 years before that, in 1054, the Eastern and Western church began its split. With delegates from each excommunicating and anathematizing each other, the unified Christian church was torn in two. No longer could one church hold the Eastern and Western Roman cultures together. The church lost its identity as one, and had to figure out how to adapt to this grave schism.
500 years before that, in 476, the Roman Empire collapsed. The political entity that 80 years earlier embraced Christianity and established it as the state religion for the first time ever disintegrated and crumbled. There was no longer a huge, dominant political power supporting Christianity, and the church had to adapt to this collapse, and find an identity apart from being the official religion of an empire.
Even 500 years before that, in the early church described by the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospels, there was an identity crisis going on. The resurrection has occurred, the Lord has been raised from the dead! By all rights, this should be a message that gives the disciples a new identity and sends them out into the world, but it doesn’t. We’re told that they’re hiding in a room on the very same day that Mary Magdalene tells them that she has seen the Lord. The very same day. Not always the brightest people, these disciples—the message seemed to have no effect on them.
Thankfully, we know that, eventually, they did go out into the world with their message. On the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit invigorated and transformed the disciples from bumbling buffoons into amazing apostles, the disciples found their identity and the identity of the Christian community.
The message of Jesus Christ having been raised from the dead, the good news that death has no hold or claim any more, the teachings of the wandering rabbi and the new relationship established with God compelled the early Christians to band together in a common identity for a common purpose. And the writer of Luke and Acts gives us an idea, looking back, on what that community looked like:
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”¹
That’s quite a community. That’s quite a way to live. And it warrants some serious examination. The tendency is to simply avoid this description of the early church because, Lord have mercy, it’s about wealth redistribution. Have there ever been two words that were more anathema to the American way of life than wealth redistribution?
And yet, that is exactly, exactly what he hear the church doing in its early days. It wasn’t any more popular then than it is now. But the church in those days understood that it didn’t need to fall in line behind the society and systems in which it existed. In fact, it sought to heal the wounds caused by those systems, and it didn’t care what people thought of it. The early church redistributed wealth from the rich in their midst to the poor in their midst so that all would be taken care of.
The church had found it’s identity. It was a group of people that proclaimed the suffering, grace, and victory of the creator of the universe, who was not the Romans. The apostles fearlessly proclaimed this good news, which flew in the face of Roman politics. Jesus Christ had brought salvation to a broken world, and that salvation was for all people in all times and places.
And the church was not afraid to live out that message. It’s no coincidence at all that the proclamation made by the apostles is accompanied by this description of the church’s activities—that everyone sold all that they had, pooled their resources together under common ownership, and gave to everyone as they had need. This, also, was part of the church’s identity: it absolutely, without question, provided for those in need. This was expected of everyone involved with the faith. If you had the means, you were expected to give up those means for those who had nothing.
I’m sad to say that the church has lost part of this identity. When it comes to how the needy among us should be cared for, the church too often comes out sounding like Ebenezer Scrooge when the problem is brought to his attention at Christmastime.
“‘At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,’ said the gentleman, taking up a pen, ‘it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.’
‘Are there no prisons?’ asked Scrooge.
‘Plenty of prisons,’ said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
‘And the Union workhouses?’ demanded Scrooge. ‘Are they still in operation?’
‘They are. Still,’ returned the gentleman, ‘I wish I could say they were not.’
‘The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?’ said Scrooge.
‘Both very busy, sir.’
‘Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,’ said Scrooge. ‘I’m very glad to hear it.’
‘Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,’ returned the gentleman, ‘a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?’
‘Nothing!’ Scrooge replied.
‘You wish to be anonymous?’
‘I wish to be left alone,’ said Scrooge. ‘Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.'”²
Very often, the church treats the poor and needy as “not our problem”, content to let others take care of that burden, as if the pathetically meager help institutions and governments offer is somehow enough—especially when we insist on defunding and crippling them. And we treat the poor as if they are less than us, somehow different, as if we are better people because we have more money; even if they are right in our midst.
Roughly 40% of families in Oneida and Vilas counties live on income that qualifies their children to receive free or reduced price lunches at school. In Eagle River alone, more than half of all children in the district qualify. Poverty is much, much closer than you think.
But the poor are not different from the church. They are part of the church’s, our, identity, too.
Throughout all of history, Christianity has been particularly appealing to the poor. It’s not hard to figure out why. Jesus did most of his ministry in poor rural areas. In the same way as the Israelite prophets, he spoke out against the oppression of the poor by the rich. He said that anyone who wished to be perfect should sell all that they own, give it to the poor, and THEN, follow him. In the story of the sheep and the goats, the identity of the followers of Christ is determined by how they treated the poor.
And then you have stories like this, where the early church is defined by their absolute commitment to helping the poor and the needy in their midst. It is central to their identity. They willingly give up their own personal wealth so that no one among them goes hungry, or without shelter, or without clothing, because it is that important to them. When they see suffering, and they can do something about it, they do. This is who the church was.
I said earlier that there have been major identity shifts in church history about every 500 years. And if you were paying attention, you might notice that it’s been about 500 years since the last one.
A lot has changed recently that challenged what we thought we knew about the church. No longer is the church a privileged member of society. No longer is it simply assumed that people are Christian, or that they go to church. No longer is church just the community social club, where everyone attended because that’s what you did as a citizen. No longer are churches the default for people to give their time or their money to. The great imperial institution known as Christendom is finally collapsing. I don’t find this particularly wrong or bad. It just is. Which means we need to reevaluate our identity.
The silver lining in all of this is that we keep hearing reports that the church is dying because it’s losing everything we assumed made it church—the privileged place, the record numbers, the buildings, the programs, the budgets. But it’s a silver lining because of stories like the one we have today.
There, we hear of a church with no privilege, no building, no programs, no fancy bulletins or projection screens, no staff, no Sunday School, no VBS, no fish fries, no ads, and yet, it is vibrant, alive, and radically changing the people connected to and around it.
And it’s not an anomaly. This was the church, the first group of Christians that gathered together. Whether or not you believe Luke’s numerical figure, it’s absolutely clear that those first Christians made a difference, a huge difference, attracting more people to their way of life. And they did it with just two things: the incredible good news that Jesus was raised from the dead, and their enormous willingness to take care of people.
Which of those two do you think people noticed more?
We have that same message. It was just last week that we remembered and celebrated the words of Mary Magdalene as she became the first apostle: “I have seen the Lord!” And thus did she deliver the good news to the disciples, who then, after a bit of prodding, took that news and shared it without hesitation, without real organization, without everything we had in Christendom and the church 50 years ago. By our own definition of what a church should do and be, they should’ve died. But they didn’t.
They lived out the Gospel in radical ways, like giving away their money and embracing the notion that the Christian life was one of giving and care for the needy, as the natural response to that good news, as the natural growth of everything Jesus said and stood for when he proclaimed, “The kingdom of God has come near”.
With nothing but their message and the love in their hearts that couldn’t bear to see the poor around them suffer, they changed the world. That was their identity.
So here we are. We, too, have an identity. Our identity, like there’s, has nothing to do with how big our budget is, or when Sunday School should be held, or how many people have been coming to us every Sunday, or how nice the building is, or which important members of the community chose our church to worship at. Sure, we used to think that our identity was wrapped up in these things. But they aren’t. And it’s a good thing, too, because everywhere around the world churches who put their trust in these things, who have made them the most important things in their lives, are failing.
Our identity is in the cross. It’s in the tomb. It’s in the waters of baptism that unite us to the God who hung on that cross and who was buried in that tomb and who rose again. We are intimately connected to and a part of that message, not only as witnesses to it but as people who live it, who are moved by the Holy Spirit. And if we can’t move, we have plenty of things we can get out of the way to make room for the spirit.
We are a group of people, adopted by God, given grace and mercy so bountiful that the love shown us can spill out wherever we go, to whomever we meet.
This is who the church is. People empowered by the good news, who take care of each other and those in need. Everything else is on the side; it’s not our identity. Our identity is in God. It’s in baptism. It’s in the good news, the sharing. It’s in our freedom to defy the norms and expectations of our culture and society to show love where it is needed most.
This is who we are. Thanks be to God that this is all we need, and that, through the spirit, it is available to us in abundance.