The Communalists

pen, checks, and bills
Image credit: <a href="">Ramberg Media Images</a>

Acts 4:32-35

Everyone in the community was unanimous. They considered each other the same as themselves, and nobody counted anything as their own, but as the community’s. Those who had been sent told their witness of the resurrection so convincingly that everyone was inspired to graciousness. So it was that nobody ever went without. Whoever owned land or houses sold them and gave the proceeds to the community. They gave it all to the those who’d been sent, and they, in turn, passed it out according to what needs people had.

Early Christians weren’t communists because they ascribed to an economic theory. They were communist because that was how they made sure everyone’s needs were met. It’s probably more accurate to say they were communalists.

Behind the community’s practice, it’s clear that there are two things going on.

First, there is an agreement that everyone really is equal, and that equality is understood, not in a theoretical “all are endowed by their creator” sense, but as a moral obligation to the other.

Second, there is a convincing witness of the resurrection that inspires graciousness. It’s not enough to simply assent to the idea that “Jesus is risen.” Lots of mean people will say they believe in the resurrection, but they don’t care about anyone but themselves. Not so convincing. A convincing witness to the resurrection is a story that inspires people to live in a resurrected way – to live graciously in relationship with others.

It’s not about the particular economic system of the community. It’s about the moral character of the community. Whatever economic system you go with, the same question applies: Is everyone taken care of according to their need? A community’s budget is a moral document.

By the Book (or maybe not)

law books
Photo credit: <a href="">Mr. T in DC</a>

Galatians 3:19-22

So, what are rules for, then? Rules were made up because people were walking all over each other. Until the arrival of the designated heir, it was given by messengers, via a middleman.

A middleman implies that more than one person was involved, but God is one person. So the question is, do the rules contradict God? Of course, they don’t.

If rules could bring someone to life, then you could be right by just following the rules. But writing down all those rules only ended up trapping everything in a rat race of wrong. So it ends up that embracing the practice of Jesus is the way out of this mess.

In an ideal world, you wouldn’t need rules. In an ideal world, people would treat each other with dignity and respect and love without having to legislate people’s behavior. But it’s not an ideal world.

Paul’s saying that the law cannot give life is like saying you can’t legislate the heart. You can’t always change someone’s mind, but you can (most of the time) limit someone’s bad behavior.

The trouble with legislation, though, is that it quite often has unintended consequences. People who are bent on doing wrong will find a way to use the letter of the law to their advantage, and even use the law to aid and abet them in their wrongdoing. Remember, just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right.

On the positive side, though, if your heart is in the right place, chances are you don’t need many rules to do the right thing. In fact, you may find that to do the right thing you’ll have to break a few. At least, that’s what Jesus found.

Another Day, Another Doomsday Prediction

Harold Camping Billboard
Photo via the <a href="">Christian Science Monitor</a>

2 Peter 3:8-15a

Friends, don’t ignore the fact that for Jesus, one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is only a day. Jesus isn’t putting off making good on his promise as some say. On the contrary, he’s patiently waiting for you to get your act together and change your lives rather than have you die. But the day of Jesus’ return will come like a thief. The sky will fall with a terrible bang, and the very elements will dissolve back into pure energy, and the earth and everything that’s happened on it will be laid bare.

So given that everything will be dissolved this way, what sort of people are you going to be? Shouldn’t you be religious and godly? Shouldn’t you wait for it, and meanwhile do everything you can to make it come sooner? Because that day the sky will burn down and everything solid will melt in flame. Even so, according to Jesus’ promise, we wait for a new heaven and earth where justice is the norm.

So, friends, while you are waiting for all this to happen, make an effort so that when he comes he’ll find you at peace, without any bad spots or rot. And think of Jesus’ delay as your opportunity to be saved.

This passage was written only a couple generations after Jesus to explain why the end of the world had not yet come, and to reassure the faithful that it would. By now according to this reckoning, we’re just into day 3. Still, it’s a long time and we haven’t yet got our act together. Between this early attempt to warn people of the imminent return of Jesus and this advent season, there have been hundreds of predictions and warnings. Two of them made the news in the past year alone. And we still have to get through another next month (December 21).

Sure, nothing lasts forever. But more often than not, and even in this early example, the threat of the end comes off as a desperate manipulation of desperate people’s fear. Even the promise of a new creation in which “justice is the norm” begs the question, “Whose justice?” And the coming of that “justice” with violence, and the encouragement that believers ought to do what they can to hasten it easily leads to a “kill ’em all and let God sort it out” attitude. A far cry from Jesus’ teaching.

2000 years later, it’s not too late to change your life. But please, do it because its the right thing to do. Not because you’re afraid of getting caught with your pants down when the divine SWAT team shows up at 3 am.

Not Quite Like Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat

Quality Control
Photo credit: <a href="">Daniel Zedda</a>

Matthew 25:31-46

When the chosen one comes in glory, with heaven’s army, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be brought to him. And he will sort them out like a quality control inspector sorts out the “on spec” products from the defective ones, putting the on spec to the right and the defective to the left.

Then the boss will say to those on the right, “Come, all of you and be happy with the owner, for you have achieved the goal for which you were made. Because when I was hungry you fed me. When I was thirsty you slaked my thirst. When I was a foreigner you welcomed me. When I was naked you clothed me. When I was sick, you healed me. When I was a prisoner, you came with me.

Then the vindicated will ask, “When sir, did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and slaked your thirst? When did we welcome you as a foreigner, or clothed your nakedness? And when were you sick or in prison that we cared for you?”

And the boss will answer, “The truth is that when you did it to the weak and helpless, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those on the left, “You cussed things! Out to the incinerator with you, you messengers of evil. When I was hungry you let me starve. When I was thirsty you let me die of dehydration. I was a foreigner and you built a fence to keep me out, naked and you let me go cold, sick and in prison and you left me to rot.”

Then they also will ask, “When sir, did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a foreigner, or naked, or sick, or imprisoned and fail to do something for you?”

And he will answer, “The truth is that when you ignored the plight of the weak and helpless, you ignored me.” And they will burn in hell. But the vindicated will live forever.

When you get to Hogwarts school for wizardry you get sorted out. But this is not Hogwarts. For one thing, there aren’t four options. Either you pass inspection or you don’t. When you get to the end of that great assembly line in the sky and have put together as much of your life as you are going to collect before you go out the factory door you have to pass QC. And either you’ve exercised your humanity or you haven’t.

Notice what’s not on the list: “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savoir?” It’s just not there. Why? Because it doesn’t matter whether you say Jesus is your Lord and Savior. What matters is what you do. What matters is that you used your life to become fully human. That you engaged with the whole of the human condition. That you did what you were made to do.

There are a bunch of other things people often say are required to make the final cut that aren’t on Jesus’ list.

  • Are you heterosexual?
  • What’s your position on abortion?
  • Do you go to church regularly every Sunday (and on Wednesday evenings)?
  • Do you tithe?
  • Do you believe in God?
  • If you believe in God, did you believe the doctrine of the Trinity?
  • Can you please tell me the date of your “born-again birthday”?
  • Do you believe the Bible is 100% literally true?

Over the years I’ve had people ask me each of these as litmus test questions to determine whether or not I was in with God. But never once has Jesus seemed even the slightest bit concerned with any of the above.

Notice what else is not on the list: “Have you been perfectly good all the time?”

Because of course, nobody is. Perhaps this is why those why make the cut are so surprised. Perhaps they know they just how not perfect they are. Even so, it’s probably their awareness of their own imperfections and flaws that make them more able to show compassion to the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the sick, and the imprisoned.

Take heart then, if you’re not perfect. It’s only human – which, of course, is the whole point.