Essential: Justice

Scripture: Isaiah 58:6-8; Acts 2:44-45

We’ve been spending the last couple weeks in Acts 2, and its description of what this thing called church first looked like, just after the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in fire and wind and commissioned them to begin their mission. The disciples preached Jesus and people listened. And as they listened, they reordered their lives in response to what they heard.

Acts tells us, “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to the shared meals and the prayers, and a sense of awe came over everyone.” Over the past weeks we’ve talked about some of the different aspects of this description of the church. What was the church, this new thing God was doing? What did it do? And fast forwarding two thousand years or so, what do those “essential” aspects look like for us now – especially as we discern our identity and mission anew in our new Covid reality that we now admit isn’t going away anytime soon? How might we hear the call anew to be the church in this new season?

We’ve talked so far about worship, and about learning and growth, about fellowship and communion, and about prayer. And today we come to the next part of the description: “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.”

I had a hard time deciding on what to call this essential aspect of church. At first I thought, generosity. But it’s not just generosity, if by generosity we mean sharing some of what we have. There’s a difference between giving out of our own abundance and releasing our claims to ownership altogether. This isn’t just about putting a little extra in the offering plate on Sunday – though of course I’m not discouraging that. This is a complete reorientation of our lives to new assumptions of ownership and sharing.

So then I thought, service. Service is good. This is about taking care of those in need, meeting the needs of those who have less, which is what we usually try to do through service – things like collecting food, making sandwiches, stuffing backpacks with school supplies. But what Acts 2 describes isn’t really service, if by service I mean something I do for you, again often as someone who is presumed to have more. And it’s especially not service if by service I mean a project I do for an hour and then go home. Again, I’m not knocking service projects; I have both participated in and organized a great many of them.  Jesus himself talked a lot about service; but that’s not what’s described here.

So I settled on justice. Justice goes beyond service and generosity to not just meet needs but address the roots of those needs. It’s not the haves lending a helping hand to the have nots; it’s empowering and equalizing. And still, this isn’t a picture of modern “justice work” as we might think of it. It’s not marching to change unfair laws and policies, or even community organizing – well, maybe it is a little of that. It’s not political – or, again, maybe it is; maybe it really is – but not the kind of political that involves calling your representatives. And again, I’m not knocking any of those things, necessary things that some of us may have been involved in recently, but what’s described here is more than that.

Maybe our essential aspect of church here is a combination of all those things. It is a generous justice that comes out of a commitment to live and do life together. It is mutual servanthood that meets each other’s needs but is also a release of socioeconomic distinctions and the power and status that come along with those. It is a justice rooted in the church’s practice of communion: common property as an extension of common tables.

As the church of today, this is probably also the aspect of the early church that makes us go [cringe.]

Worship and prayer? Sounds great. Learning and growing? Can do. Eating together? Yes please! Selling all your property and distributing the proceeds to all who have need? [Cringe.]

And that’s why, I think, it was tempting for me at first to take a line like this and reduce it to something that sounds nice and doable and church-like: Generosity. Service. Even justice.

Holding all things in common is not a characteristic of most modern churches I know. In fact, we have a word for religious organizations that demand that you give up all your worldly possessions, and if you told me you were joining one, I’d tell you to be careful of the Kool-Aid. And if it makes you feel any better, there’s not really any historic evidence that the even the early church was perfectly like this. Acts probably gives us an idealized picture here. Certainly by the time Paul was writing to his churches the picture was somewhat different; we came across that fact a few weeks ago, when some of the church members in Corinth were leaving the potluck drunk and stuffed while others hadn’t gotten anything to eat at all.

But maybe we shouldn’t let ourselves off the hook so fast. Maybe instead we let Acts hold this idea of communal, egalitarian justice in front of us, even if our own community probably isn’t going to look like that today, or even tomorrow.

The question is, if we claim this kind of justice rooted in communion as an essential aspect of church, what does that mean for us now? In a season where neither fellowship nor service can look like it used to – in a season where we are left without many of the ways we have normally found to share with others – what does justice look like now?

What does it mean when we can’t offer our building as a place of welcome and respite to those in our community as we used to? It used to be that people could find a bit of a home here during the week – not just something to eat, but also a place where they were welcome. While not all of you may have been here during the week to meet or greet those who came in, your tithes and offerings helped keep our doors open for them. Sometimes we would see a handful of those same neighbors on Sunday, if not for worship, then at least for coffee afterwards. And it may not have been holding all property in common, but there is something equalizing about sitting at a table with someone, even if only for a moment. It’s a start.

Don’t get me wrong, there are good reasons why our doors are still closed. Many of you have been faithful in helping keep us stocked with food to give out to people who continue to come to our door, and Divine has been faithful in making sure they are fed – not just with the bare minimum, but sandwiches, coffee, extras for the weekend. But there is something lost in not being able to greet our neighbors or sit down with them, the ones who will never make it to a Zoom meeting. This, by the way, is something we’ll have to contend with in the next few years when we don’t have our own building, as a new one is being built.

What does it mean when we can’t gather for acts of service like we used to – to make sandwiches, or even to repair homes in Appalachia? What does meeting the needs of neighbors near and far look like now – needs both material and relational? What does it mean when the call to work for and embody racial justice has been renewed in our country in the past few months? How are we called to work for and embody that communal, equalizing justice within our community, even within our congregation, and beyond?

I don’t know that I have good answers at the moment, but I do believe we may be called to reimagine our practice of generosity and service and justice. How can we be about not just meeting material needs, but offering welcome as equals – in a season of distancing? How can we be the kind of church that cares, radically and sacrificially, for each other and others around us in need, a church that doesn’t just give but shares, a church where our practice of justice is rooted in communion? I’d love to know your thoughts and ideas, either as you write them in the chat or talk to me later.

When life is upended, it’s easy to let certain things go. And it can be hard to reclaim them, especially when life still looks so different from what it once did. But as always, I sense that there may be an opportunity here – to discern God’s call for us once again, renew our focus, be creative, try new ways to welcome people home, building or no.

We may not look just like the church of Acts, today or tomorrow. But I believe the Holy Spirit is still blowing through our midst, calling us back to something old, and on to something new.

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