Acts 2:42-47 (1 Peter 2:19-25)
They say that religion and politics shouldn’t mix. Which is probably true in some sense. We don’t ever have to look far to find some toxic combination of political power and religious fervour to see that such a combination is a bad thing. But on the other hand the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the gospel that springs from has inevitably political consequences.
Luke describes what the very first Church was like in Jerusalem. He tells us:
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.
Politics, like physics or economics is a science. It is merely the science of how people organise their lives together. The gospel is unavoidably political because it produces the church. And the church is “political” because it is a gathering of a group of people who share their lives together. And this is exactly what Luke is describing here. Jesus was betrayed, rejected, condemned and executed. Even at that point the disciples were gathered together, sharing their lives. They were hiding in a locked room for fear of the authorities. Even that is a politics of sorts. But Jesus has been raised from the dead. Which transforms the group of disciples into something different, a community with hope and vision. Which is a politics with a lot of potential. And then as Luke describes it the Holy Spirit descends on the community and things really start to happen. He shows us what the disciples have become, in this passage. They have formed themselves into a community, which holds its property in common. They have shared their resources so that everyone’s needs can be met. They have sold off such surplus goods as they have, so that rather than accumulating it for themselves, it can be used to relieve the suffering of those in need. Even Karl Marx recognised what they were doing as a kind of primitive communism. They were definitely moving away from organising their community in a way that rewarded some people’s ability, towards a community that met everybody’s needs. If this church isn’t political, then nothing is.
Luke tells us that:
many signs and wonders were being done by the apostles.
Bearing in mind who this community was, perhaps the most miraculous thing which the apostles did, was create this community. We are talking about the most diverse group of people. The passage we read began with a pronoun: “They.”
We have to look back to the preceding verse to see who “they” are:
and that day about three thousand persons were added.
This was the crowd of people from every nation under the sun which was gathered that witnessed the effects of the Holy Spirit on the disciples, and heard Peter’s preaching. These were people from every place and every background. That this diversity was formed into a community is remarkable. But that they were persuaded to give up their possessions for one another is outright miraculous. That sharing of possessions is concrete testimony that something truly unsettling, but something genuinely substantial had happened to these people. Such was the power of the resurrection. Such was the power of Pentecost. It broke down all the usual who boundaries and attachments and forged a completely new community. This was the first church. And it looks nothing like almost any church we have we have experienced.
This passage has been an important one in the history of the church. Time and again believers have come back to it to capture of vision of what the church might be. This church didn’t last long. Even before Luke has finished telling his story in Acts, this church seems already to be a thing of the past. But the importance of this passage is that it shows that the attempt was made. It shows that wherever the Gospel of Jesus Christ is preached and heard it is inevitable that there should be impulses made in this direction. Not only is the gospel political, the good news produces a politics of the most radical kind. Marx (again) called the revolution he was expecting: the most radical rupture. From the perspective of the first Christians that most radical rupture had already taken place: in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Of course there are those who dismiss Luke’s description. They say, “it never happened. It couldn’t have been like that. Luke is fantasising, he’s romanticising, he’s idealising.” And because the Church we know isn’t like the one Luke describes we might think they’re right. And maybe we think the idea of giving up our possessions and selling what we have spare and living a shared life, is neither what we want nor what we are capable of. So we too might think that Luke’s description is aspirational rather than actual. He’s telling us about the church that he would like to be, not the one which actually was. But that such criticism is made and that we a likely to respond in that way, tells us more about us and the politics we are living with, than it does about the early church. We are living in a world which tells us that there is no alternative. No alternative especially to the greed of human beings, and their desire to accumulate more and more. There is no alternative we are told to the widening gap between rich and poor No alternative to the conflicts personal, social and international that are a consequence of greedy human nature. No alternative to the destruction of the environment that results from such greed. The is no alternative.
If we look at conventional politics our complaint might be that no vision and no real alternative are being offered. The choice we are offered is between those who say “yeah and amen” to such greed as if it were a good thing, and allow it to be indulged. And those who would like to restrain its worst consequences, whilst still accepting the greed is unavoidable, and nothing can be done about it. We are captive to such a politics. But to be so is to be trapped with the disciples on Saturday, after Good Friday and before Easter Sunday. Locked in our room out of fear. That is a politics of despair, which is precisely what we are surrounded by. In reality that is a crisis of faith. It is to accept that there is no alternative. It is to accept that the vision of a community organised in a completely different way is not real but is merely Luke’s wishfulness. It is to accept that the Resurrection and Pentecost don’t have the power to transform individuals and society. But that such a church did exist, albeit briefly at the beginning, and again and again since is positive testimony that there is an alternative.
There is an interesting juxtaposition between two of the readings set for this Sunday. We hear Luke tell us in Acts that the first church in Jerusalem was:
having the goodwill of all the people.
But then we are invited to read what Peter says. And his picture is quite different:
If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.
It is clear that Peter was writing to a persecuted church. At some point the church lost the goodwill of all the people. Or was it just that in those first few weeks after Pentecost no one had really noticed the challenge that such a vision of society makes against those in power. There are some people who benefit from the idea that there is no alternative. Obviously if your greed is being satisfied, you don’t want anyone to challenge the vision of society that is satisfying your greed. The illusion that there is no alternative is being actively promoted by those whose interests it serves. There is a deliberate attempt to crush the hope of those who would challenge that status quo. And it is here that religion and politics don’t mix. Because there are some religious people to who accept that the way things are, is the only way they can be, and try to make the most of it. There are no shortage of religious people who don’t so much want to change the world, as to take it over for themselves. But those who want the world to change. And especially those who have a vision of what that change might look like, as Peter found out, are bound to run into trouble with those who don’t want that change. Dom Hedder Camara, a Brazilian priest said: “When I give bread to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no bread, they call me a communist.” For a while the Church can have the favour of all the people, but before long those in power recognise our vision for what it is, and we would suffer.
They say religion and politics don’t mix. What we mustn’t forget is that it is religion we are talking about, or rather faith in the resurrection, and its outcome. That vision of an alternative, that constructing of a community of share possessions and care of the poor, grows out of a worshipping community. Luke’s vision of a political community is preceded by his vision of a worshipping community.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
This was a church, not just a social or political movement. Luke also pictures for us the worship life of the first church, much of which we would recognise. The apostles’ teaching of course eventually is set down in writing and becomes the New Testament. Fellowship is genuinely something we experience when we gather as a congregation, both in the sanctuary for worship, but also in all the other places and ways we come together. The breaking of bread, we recognise right away as an allusion to Holy Communion. But also we see something broader than that, all the meals we share with each other, that break down social boundaries and create solidarity, unity and deep friendship. And last but not least prayers, they way which we orient ourselves to God’s vision for us and the world, rather than the one which is offering no alternative. What and how people worship determines the people they become and the society they create between them. Which is why religion and politics are in fact inseparable. We would say that the problem we face is that worshipping greed creates a terrible politics. Worshipping the God who raised Jesus from the dead produces something quite different. It produces a vision of society where everyone’s needs are met, and from time to time produces concrete examples of what that looks like, like the first church in Jerusalem. That is a vision which can sustain us, and transform those around us. And never forget:
And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Another sermon for this Sunday and based on the Acts reading, written in the midst of lockdown is available here.
Religion and Politics by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
1 thought on “A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (30/04/23):Religion and Politics”
Thanks Christopher…. really, really good! Liked the quote from Camara… and your conclusion that worshipping Greed creates terrible politics and worshipping the God who raises from the dead, something else!