As the view of Easter gets more and more distant in our rearview mirrors, we’re talking each Sunday about a radical concept: living like Easter matters . . . eschewing the idea that Easter comes once a year and involves primarily a whole lot of chocolate . . . trying to figure out how it is that we move from proclaiming resurrection on Easter Sunday to practicing resurrection, every single day of our lives.
Resurrection has to matter, you see. Hunting for Easter Eggs once a year just doesn’t cut it. If I am going to survive this human life and learn, even incrementally, to be like Jesus, Easter has to happen all the time.
In our quest these weeks after Easter we’re examining different characteristics of vital Christian faith and community, called “signposts of renewal” by author Diana Butler Bass. While she studies modern mainline Protestant churches, many of the signposts of renewal she identifies in them were characteristics of the very first Christian church, whose story is told in the book of Acts. As we struggle to practice resurrection we can look back over 2000 years and identify practices that gave life and meaning to the first communities of Christians.
Today we’re talking about justice, and we’re invited to look at what it means to practice justice by five little verses in the second chapter of Acts. These verses describe some of the day to day life of the first Christian community—their practice of “just living.” I’d like to read these verses again now:
“They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and prayer. Fear came on every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together, and had all things in common. They sold their possessions and goods, and distributed them to all, according as anyone had need. Day by day, continuing steadfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. The Lord added to the assembly day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).
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I had the brilliant idea last year to give my husband the gift of a cookbook for Christmas. The cookbook I chose was written by the chef and owner of Mark’s favorite New Orleans restaurant. But my actual gift to him was really more than the cookbook. It was a meal, selected by him from his new cookbook and cooked by me, for each month of 2008.
Three down and 9 to go and I am telling you, what I thought was brilliant at the time is proving to be a whole lot of work.
But it was because of this brilliant idea that, just last week I found myself concocting Crispy Cinnamon Dusted Banana Fritters.
It may surprise you to know this, but Crispy Cinnamon Dusted Banana Fritters are not a staple in our home.
For one thing, their creation involves several steps, including deep frying in oil, which, as you know, makes a huge mess. For another thing, one of the steps in the recipe requires separating some eggs, beating the whites to stiff peaks and then folding them into the batter. Last week I kept getting stuck at this step.
Unless you do this often, I observe, it can be really hard to separate eggs. And egg whites will not be beaten into stiff peaks if there is even one teeny bit of egg yolk that has mistakenly been mixed in. Let’s just say that I don’t know why Crispy Cinnamon Dusted Banana Fritters NEED folded in egg whites, but I do know that in order for that to happen we ended up with a whole lot of scrambled eggs.
Once a little bit of yolk gets in the mix you can’t separate them no matter how hard you try. You have to surrender the whole bowl and start again.
This irrevocable mixing also applies, it seems to me, to our view of the Acts 2 passage I just read.
You and I are products of the Enlightenment, you see, and—to make matters worse—we live in one of the most political cities in the world. We have a tendency to read a passage like Acts 2 and assign political ideology to what the first Christians were doing. Call it communism or socialism, liberal or conservative, “They sold their possessions and goods, and distributed them to all, according as anyone had need” sounds a whole lot like one of the chapters in my high school political science textbook. What does this have to do with spiritual practice and, are you implying, preacher, that there is a certain political ideology that is the “Christian way of doing things?”
The truth is, from this side of the fence, 2000 years after the first church, it’s nearly impossible for you and me to separate the yolks and the whites of spiritual practice and political ideology. We live in a society where secular systems handle (or don’t handle, as the case may be) things like making sure hungry people have something to eat. Because of the social and historical context in which we live, we don’t understand justice in the same way the first Christians did—as a spiritual practice—but rather we tend to consider justice the purview of our court system.
But for the first Christians, the whites and the yolks were clearly delineated. There were no secular social structures in place to insure basic needs were met. Depending on the luck of the draw you could be the son of a wealthy merchant living in luxury for which you never worked or you might be the widow of a poor laborer, left with children to support and no means by which to do it. There were no food stamps or social security, no Medicaid and no No Child Left Behind.
In fact, religious practice generally separated people into homogeneous subgroups: women and men, rich and poor, powerful and powerless. But societal inequities came in and made themselves at home in the first Christian communities because Jesus had the annoying habit of always welcoming everyone. And so, the first Christians’ spiritual practice, their faith in Jesus Christ, changed their experience of what it meant to follow God. Justice became a spiritual practice.
Right there in the front pew was Nicodemus, a leader of the Pharisees, sitting right next to Mary Magdalene, a desperate woman with a really bad reputation. Zaccheus the tax collector was sitting over there with wealthy, socially connected Joseph of Arimathea. And right back there was Simon Peter, devout Jew from birth, next to Cornelius, a Gentile centurion of the Roman cohort. There they were, all together, worshipping the God they’d come to understand loved each one of them equally.
And when that began to happen, the distinctions between all of them miraculously dissolved. And this, you see, is practicing justice: living in such a way that we actively eliminate any barrier to Gospel transformation we encounter.
See, they weren’t creating a new political agenda or establishing a special social order.
All they were doing was following Jesus.
And to follow Jesus with integrity and life and meaning meant engaging in a great spiritual struggle to live a whole new way.
Sometimes it involved things like meeting an immediate need; sometimes it involved creating whole new ways of doing things, establishing systems that reflected their Gospel values. Selling their possessions, praising God, meeting to share a meal, cultivating glad and sincere hearts, holding everything in common, worshipping in the temple . . . these were spiritual practices.
But what does that mean for you and for me, people who are not in the same situation as the first Christians?
It means that we, too, have to see justice not as a political struggle but rather as a spiritual battle.
I was in the my office earlier this week and I had just sat down determined to set aside this one hour I had to prepare for Sunday. The person answering the telephones had stepped out for a minute so after some persistent ringing I finally gave in and picked up the telephone.
I heard the woman on the other end say that she was out in the front foyer and she was wondering if there was a minister there who might talk with her for a few minutes.
I thought hard about my answer. Is there a minister here? Yes . . . but that minister is way behind on her sermon preparation for this week . . . .
I went to the door and let in a slight, middle aged woman who had a really kind face. We sat down and she explained that she had a question she was wondering if I could answer for her. She wondered what some strategies might be for getting the devil to stop bothering her. She went on to explain her concerns that no matter what she did, the devil was always getting in the way and she just wanted him to stop. Well, I talked with her for awhile about some of her issues, we prayed together and she left.
Sighing, I went back to the books. This poor woman, I thought, was living in a world that was not real and struggling against what, to her, were powerful spiritual forces. But as I looked at this passage in the book of Acts and I realized: maybe you and I don’t look at our lives enough as a spiritual struggle. Maybe we’re so conditioned to think ideologically and politically that we forget: the challenge of practicing resurrection is aspiritual challenge. When we make a commitment to caring for everyone with a need, we are engaging in a spiritual battle against forces that are strong and pervasive. Practicing justice making puts us in the scary position of challenging poverty, racism, inequality, over consumption . . . all these things that plague our lives are spiritual forces that keep us from practicing resurrection, and a commitment to justice is a commitment to make them obsolete.
I heard this story recently on a radio show called Day 1. A Presbyterian minister from North Carolina was recounting an experience he had in his first job as youth minister. He’d met with the parents’ committee and they’d all decided that the privileged teenagers in their church’s youth group really needed to learn how good they had it and to experience the inequities of the world as they exists now.
To do that, they decided to hold a dinner in the fellowship hall. The idea was that when the group of about 30 teenagers assembled, the leaders would break them up into groups that represented percentages of the world’s population. The planners of the event bought all sorts of food: sodas, chips, dessert, steak, pizza, you name it. The kids would be given money to represent their resources and they would have to spend it to purchase their dinners.
The night of the dinner they all assembled in the fellowship hall and the leaders selected two members of the group. These two youth, they explained, represented the richest nations in the world. They were given one hundred dollars in play money to share, much, much more than they needed to fill their stomachs at dinner that night. The next group was a group of 10 who represented the less wealthy in the world. This group was given forty dollars to share, and if they were careful they would each have a reasonable dinner with those resources. The group of 20 or so that remained received a few dollars and the only thing they would be able to buy was rice—maybe enough for everyone to have a bite, but probably not much more than that.
The parents and the youth minister then invited the kids to come down the buffet line and “buy” their dinner. A parent was situated at the end of the table as the cashier and some of the other parents made sure the lessons were being learned: “First, we’ll have the two rich people. Look! They have more money than they need. They can buy as much dinner as they want and more.” When the second group came up they narrated: “Now this group is going to have some limitations . . . they will have figure out how to share.” And as the third group came up they said: “What are you going to do? How are you going to feed yourselves?”
The youth minister and the parents were so proud of this activity! Finally, these privileged kids will get a chance to experience what most of the world goes through; they would see what it feels like to have to worry about having enough to eat.
But soon after instruction was given, the youth minister and the volunteers started to notice that every kid coming through the line was loading his or her plate with food: fried chicken and potato salad was disappearing fast; everyone grabbed a soda; on top of their loaded plates they balanced brownies and cookies.
“No, no, no!” the organizers tried to stop the kids. “You don’t understand! You can’t have the food if you don’t have the money to buy it! That’s the reality of the great distinctions in this world!” But one by one each kid got up to the cashier, pulled out a wad of bills, and paid for his or her food.
The youth minister was stumped.
Well, it turns out that one of the youth had been tipped off about their activity that night. Passing the youth minister’s office earlier that day, he saw the play money lying on the desk and had an idea. That youth made photocopies of the money, cut it up and distributed it to everybody ahead of time, so that every single member of the youth group had more than enough money.
The youth minister said to the parent volunteers: “This was supposed to be an activity about the reality of this world! I could kill that kid! Now the whole lesson is ruined!”
The leaders were discussing their dismay when one parent interrupted. “Wait a second. Take a look at what is going on here!”
They looked up and saw the whole youth group gathered around tables, enjoying their food together. Their distinctions of age and social groups had dissolved. They were all smiling and laughing, talking and sharing. Some of them were throwing the extra money up in the air and celebrating their defiance of an order that would keep anyone in their group from having what they needed.
The kids in that youth group may not have learned the poverty simulation lesson the leaders intended, but what they did do that night was act out Gospel faith in a strange and radical way. How? Well, their own accumulation and status became secondary as they made provisions to create enough for everyone, and the end result was vital and transformational community.
This is practicing justice.
This is practicing resurrection.
I don’t know if you and I will ever be able to separate the yolk and the white of this egg, but I do know that we must see radical acts of justice as vital and spiritual practice if we intend to be Gospel people. Because we are followers of a God who created life out of death, we subscribe to the unlikely truth that the spiritual powers of oppression, alienation, poverty and inequity can be challenged by a faith that insists on making sure everyone has what they need.
This week it is our holy honor and strident challenge to look at the places in our lives and in our community in which inequities are the focus of energy instead of Gospel. It’s into these areas that we apply the practice of justice and offer everyone an opportunity to live out the Gospel here.
The prophet Amos cried out over and over for this to happen: “Let justice roll on like rivers and righteousness like a mighty stream!” because he knew, as did the first Christians, that when we practice justice in the radical way God invites us to, we will not be able to stop the outpouring of God’s Spirit. There will be people flocking to our community as they did to the first Christian church. There will be teenagers throwing money in the air, shaking their fists at the powers of this world. And . . . there might even be ordinary Christ followers like you and me, who determine to live lives that combat injustice wherever we find it, and in the process discover that we’re, all of the sudden, practicing resurrection. For this we pray.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.