Alleluia. Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Is there any text more comforting than the 23rd Psalm? The certainty of that first verse never fails to encourage me: the Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not be in want. I want the kind of faith that can say that and believe it 100%, but I will admit to you that I can’t always say I have it.
This extended isolation period challenges my faith: I am in want. Not for material things: I am blessed with a comfortable home, a steady income; but I am in want of community, of freedom of movement, of hugs and handshakes. But I still recite this Psalm with conviction, because I know that God is present in this, as God is present in every moment of our lives. And I know that if I hold fast to my faith, as imperfect as it might be, God will lead me to green pastures and still waters; God will revive my soul when it is fainting and guide me in right pathways.
The good shepherd comes to bring life and abundance; the good shepherd leads his flock out of danger; the good shepherd shares the life of the sheep and knows every detail of their joys and sorrows.
Many of us are living in uncharted territory. Who could have imagined an America where you couldn’t go to a restaurant or a ballgame? Who could have imagined a time when we couldn’t gather in church and couldn’t even feel confident that we would ever gather in church again? We are being forced to find new ways to be the people of God, to explore new pathways and look for different pastures. What will it mean to be a Christian in a post-pandemic world?
After the first Easter, the disciples had to find a new way to be the people of God. They were steeped in the Jewish tradition and part of a highly stratified culture. Economic divisions were deep; slavery was part of their world and, at the other end of the socioeconomic scale, the rulers of Rome claimed to be divine. Those first Christians were still Jews. They clung to the symbolic center of their national faith, the Temple in Jerusalem. They worshiped there constantly, but they were becoming aware that the Jewish authorities disapproved of their resurrection faith. The next thing that happens in Acts, after today’s passage, is a story of how Peter and John miraculously cured a man in the Temple precincts, after which Peter preached a courageous and provocative sermon about the Messiah. That was the beginning of the end of the Christian sojourn within the Temple and within the mainstream Jewish religion. Very shortly thereafter, they were on their own, faced with the need to invent something entirely new.
The verses we heard from Acts today paint an idyllic picture of the first days after Pentecost, before conflict and power struggles started to creep in. The disciples were united, all of one heart and mind. They shared everything. They did signs and wonders. They served the poor. They prayed together, studied Scripture together, broke bread together. These six verses encapsulate what many of us would like the church to be today – even though some of it comes perilously close to a definition of that dreaded word, socialism.
The new Christians were inventing a whole new way of being the people of God. They introduced new rituals, baptism and Communion. They adopted a radical practice of flattening demographic divisions, regarding each person as a beloved child of God, nothing less and nothing more. Whether you were a slave or an aristocrat, when you joined the Way, you simply became a brother or sister in Christ. Those with plenty gave up their abundance to provide others with enough. Just think for a minute of what it would take for us to adopt these practices today. We would be regarded as a radical sect. We would look different from most other congregations. We would face pushback from family members, colleagues, and neighbors.
For the new community, there were big fights ahead: over membership – should the men be circumcised? Was baptism in the Holy Spirit necessary? Over authority – who would be in charge? Was it only the original apostles who could speak for Jesus, or could others? Were women permitted to speak or lead? Over the nature of Jesus himself – was he fully divine, fully human, a bit of both? All this unfolded over the next few decades, and in some cases we are still arguing over it.
In this beginning time, the disciples were trying to sort out how to be church. They could no longer rely on the hierarchy or the tradition to tell them what to do. They were developing ways of worship that were unfamiliar and even offensive to the people around them – remember that non-Christians believed that Christians were cannibals, because of the fake news they heard about the Eucharist. In this tender time the disciples needed community more than ever. They needed to stick together as a flock, under the one good Shepherd.
In those early days a lot of the disciples believed that Jesus would return very soon to redeem Israel and usher in the Kingdom. So they held back from creating structures and rules because it was all temporary. But soon enough that hope started to fade, and by the time John’s Gospel was written, the Christian community had realized that they were in for the long haul, and they started to create the structure of membership, of insiders and outsiders, of walls and gates, of doctrinal requirements that would maintain what they regarded as the purity of the faith; and all of this held fast for the next couple of thousand years.
And today, where are we in this story? We are starting to realize that the changes forced upon us by the COVID 19 epidemic might not be short-term. They might not even be temporary. When will we feel comfortable cramming together in a crowded church, drinking from a common cup, handling shared hymnals and collection plates, placing our hands on an altar rail that 20 other people have just touched? Maybe we are in a place similar to those first Christians, of having to figure out how to be church all over again. Today none of us knows when or how we will be able to gather in community again. And, like those first Christians, in this uncertain time we need to stick together as a flock, even if only virtually, under the one good Shepherd. And we need to hold fast to our faith that this good Shepherd is still with us, watching over us, and guiding us to those green pastures ahead.
Alleluia. Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!
May 3, 2020, the Fourth Sunday of Easter
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges