A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (03/05/20): The Radical Response to the Resurrection

The Radical Response to the Resurrection
Acts 2:42-47

The task which Luke gives himself in writing the Acts of the Apostles is to show us what happens when the message of the resurrection is preached. On Easter morning and the days that follow, one after another Jesus’ friends have discovered that he is not dead but alive. And he is not just alive but really present to them. He is available to them as he ever was. Jesus has given them the task which has remained the task of the Church ever since, to announce the good news of the kingdom of God to the ends of the earth until the end of time. On the day of Pentecost the Apostles are given the means to fulfil the mission of the Church, they are filled with the Spirit. And Peter begins the announcement which has gone on ever since. Luke in Acts shows us what happens next.

Put most simplistically, the Church is what happened next. Which perhaps just at the moment makes the book of Acts a difficult read. We are living through difficult times, in which for good reasons, we are cut off from one another. The book of Acts shows us something which we might remember, or might aspire to, but which for the moment we can’t experience. The Church as we have known it has ceased to function.  Typically we look for ways to articulate, to describe what this experience is like. Shut into our homes for weeks on end, isolated from normal human contact, perhaps feels like being entombed. The range of our movements, the range of our human contacts has been reduced almost to zero, like being buried. Perhaps the connection with Jesus’ experience between the end of Good Friday and the early hours of Easter Day is a little overblown. But we could see in our current experience an echo of Jesus’ time in the tomb. Which of course would make what we are presently going through potentially hopeful. Because Jesus’ time in the tomb was followed by a glorious reemergence, the Resurrection. This time of restriction, this time entombed for the most part in our own homes, will come to an end. On the other side of the current circumstances, when churches are closed, and we are prevented from gathering, something will emerge. I think we are beginning to realise that what will emerge will not be the same as what went before. I think we recognise that restrictions are likely to remain. How we interact socially with one another, how we can be present to each other, will change forever. The current crisis is perhaps also the final blow against some parts of what we were doing. It is not as if our churches were at their greatest strength before all of this happened. This crisis will have been the last straw for some. Some parts of the church simply will not return, they will be lost. But there will be a reemergence, weeks or months from now, it will happen. And into that reemergence the message of the resurrection will be preached:
Jesus who was crucified now lives.
What was dead can be alive.
After what we are going through, that message will perhaps feel fresher, more exciting, more relevant than sometimes we have felt it to be. And in response to that message something will emerge. The books of Acts, and especially Acts chapter 2, gives us a picture of what that something might look like.

Of course what emerges is likely to be somewhat similar to what existed before. For all its variety of expression the Church has some features that are universal. What comes next will have some continuity with what went before. Though this continuity will be experienced with a clearer appreciation of the importance of those universals of the Church. Luke describes what the very first church did:
They devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and to the breaking of bread and the prayers
When the first Christians did those things they were fresh, dynamic and exciting. But that verse in fact describes the routine of Church life. It describes a pattern of Christian discipleship which at its beginning and through much of its history Methodism understood and appreciated. That verse shows us that the very first church engaged itself in Bible study, Communion and fellowship, and prayer. Perhaps recently we have not been as enthusiastic about that routine of Church life. But we could argue that they are essential to the life of the Church, and whatever emerges in response to the preaching of the Resurrection, it must be built on this foundation.
At the beginning the only Bible which the first Christians had was what we have come to call the Old Testament. But what makes the Church Christian is that it receives those scriptures viewed through what happened in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The first Christians had the eyewitnesses to those things to guide them into a fresh understanding of God and their place in the world. What Luke calls the “Apostles’ teaching” was not written down at that point. Luke himself was one of those giving it written form. At the heart of what the Church does, and it is shockingly easy for us to forget this, is the shared practice of earnest study of the Scriptures, both the New Testament, and the Old Testament viewed through what God has done in Jesus.
What we are acutely aware of in the present moment is that we are prevented from meeting. What we long for is the restoration, the reemergence of collective worship. Luke’s words “the breaking of bread” point us to Holy Communion. The Church has from its first moments called to mind Jesus’ ministry in a shared symbolic meal. The Lord’s Supper, historically has been more important to Methodists than we sometimes consciously recognise. Methodism began as much as a Eucharistic revival as it did as an Evangelical revival. That is, we began by seeing the importance of the “breaking of bread” as much as we did in our renewed devotion to the “Apostles’ teaching.” Methodists have always valued what we call the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Methodists know the value of sacrament, but we also understand the sacramentality of shared life, of fellowship. We traditionally have not restricted our understanding of the “breaking of bread” just to a particular action in some Sunday Services. We (at least subconsciously) understand that the whole of our lives together, every time we share food or fellowship, brings us some experience of the real presence of the risen Christ. Whether we have recognised it or not, this is why “church socials” are so important to Methodists. What perhaps will emerge from our current deprivation will be a fresh appreciation of that fundamental aspect of Methodist church life.
Something that used to be a feature of every Methodist church was a regular prayer meeting. One of my favourite images from my family’s storytelling is the description that my grandfather gave of his grandfather. My granddad recalled that when he was a small boy growing up in a Primitive Methodist Chapel near Hull, his grandfather in his navy blue Sunday  suit would take the handkerchief out of his breast pocket and spread it on the pew in chapel, so that he could kneel on it back-to-front with his elbows on the back of the pew. This was the attitude all the members of that little chapel assumed at the end of Sunday evening’s service, which was the beginning of their weekly prayer meeting. Often earlier Methodists responded to the message of the resurrection in the same way as the first Christians. Luke recalls that the first church devoted themselves not just to the Apostles’ teaching and the breaking of bread, but also devoted themselves to the “prayers.” Perhaps what some of us are realising in this time of isolation is the value of a shared discipline of praying together. Perhaps what could emerge as we are released from the current restrictions is the recovery of regular prayer meetings that were so vital to the first Christians and to earlier generations of Methodists.

So far, so familiar. But the first response to the announcement of the resurrection was significantly more radical:
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 needs.
The response of the first believers to the message of the resurrection was a transformation of their social and economic relationships. The change they experienced was to say the least revolutionary. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, since it is an idea that seems shocking: The first Christians were communists. Among themselves they practiced a primitive form of communism. After all, the abolition of private property and the reordering of social and economic life within a society to meet all its members’ needs is the very definition of communism in the proper sense.  Their reasons for ordering their lives together this way were theological rather than political. (Though in truth theology always demands a political expression, and politics always expresses an implicit theology.)
The message of the resurrection brought into much clearer focus God and God’s kingdom  for the first Christians. They saw themselves as a redeemed people. Everything they were and had was because God had given it back to them. They recognised in particular that their possessions were not for themselves alone but were intended by God to serve a wider purpose. If they had means or ability they were given to meet the needs of the whole community, who like them were precious to God. The message of the resurrection calls for a radical revaluation of values which in turn produces a revolutionary response.
One of the things that the crisis brought on by the pandemic and the restrictions that have been imposed on us because of it, has been a calling into question by our society at large of the direction we are going and the values that are driving us. We have recognised that those most important for the well-being of society have been up to now those least valued. It turns out who we really need are distribution workers and delivery drivers, cleaners and shelf-stackers, to say nothing of nurses and care-workers. As the economy has ground to a halt it has caused us to question what purpose all this activity was serving, and whether it was really creating well-being for everyone. As the roads have become quiet and the skies free of planes we have been reminded of the impact that human activity has on the environment and on the planet that is home to us all. Some at least are wondering whether this crisis is not an opportunity to press a reset button on what the human race does, so that when thing begin again we might do things a little better.

What the Church does can be called “prefiguration politics.” That is, the Church tries to live in the present the future that we hope will be the reality for everyone. We attempt to live among ourselves the life that will become the reality for all when  God’s kingdom is fully established. Indeed the church is meant to be a kind of living parable of the kingdom. We are meant to be the change we want to see. The mission and the ministry of the Church are the same thing, we are meant to embody the reality of God’s reign, here and now. As we emerge from lock-down and the crisis which the corona virus has created there is an opportunity for Christians to offer the world a vision of what the world might be. That vision is the radically transformed social and economic relationships which Luke describes as the response the first Christians made to the preaching of the resurrection. This is not the first time that the world and the church, or part of it has endured a crisis which changed the way things are running. It is not the first time Christians have the opportunity to demonstrate the radical possibility of transformed life which the resurrection offers. A previous pandemic, the Black Death, led to the Bohemian Reformation, where Christians in what is now the Czech Republic established radical forms of discipleship based on the model Luke shows us in Acts chapter 2. During the 16th Century in the disruption created by the wars of religion that wracked that century, again some Christians turned to the same vision of radical discipleship and formed groups which their enemies called Anabaptist. Likewise in the turmoil of the English Civil War also produced a radical response among some, groups like the Levellers and the Diggers. Even Methodism itself, a radicalisation of commitment to the gospel, was in part a response to the social and economic disruption brought about by the beginnings of the industrial revolution. In the 20th Century, the depression of the 1930’s led Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin to found the Catholic Worker movement, with its rejection of property and wealth and its commitment to radical hospitality and sharing. Perhaps when we can again gather and here the message of the resurrection:
Christ who was crucified is alive.
What was dead can be alive.
Our response to that Good News can be just a radical.

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The Radical Response to the Resurrection by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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