Click the arrow to listen to a recording of the homily. A video of the whole service may be viewed at https://youtu.be/OsUGPG8ARiA.
A little while ago I developed an interest in tracing our family tree - my Dad had made a start, and several other family members had added information along the way, and Ancestry.com promised to take all the hard work out of it, so Alison and I set to work clicking on the leaves that magically appeared to suggest a possible match. We were soon looking at war diaries, newspaper clippings, shipping manifests and even parish and census records from two centuries ago. We managed to add a few connections and push the family tree back a few generations - it was fun and of course you wonder who you would be if great grandpa hadn’t got on that ship.
It occurs to me that the Acts of the Apostles is the church's equivalent of a genealogy. We find out how it all started, the first days of the church, what happened at the very, very beginning of the Church. And it’s an amazing story! The event that happens right before this passage is described in big, wild words--there is a wind that blows through, there is imagery of fire, the Spirit is tangible and alive. People are bewildered and amazed and perplexed, and it's loud and large and out of control. Then Peter stands up and gives the kind of sermon that other preachers can only dream of giving. He weaves in the Hebrew Scriptures with Jesus' life, and he is speaking to every member of the crowd in their own language, wild with the Spirit but coherent as never before.
But despite its amazing beginning, Luke’s subsequent vision of the early Christian community is anything but wild - it’s a vision of peace and order. The people are doing theology together, they are living and eating together and praying together. And Luke uses a word to describe this ideal Christian community, the Greek word koinonia that literally means everything held in common, a sharing not only of possessions but of lives, a word that we often translate as fellowship. As in any good vision of the way things ought to be, food figures fairly prominently. It’s a vision of a community transformed by the Holy Spirit and the main characteristic is that everything is shared - the essence of koinonia is not just a group of people who come together or tune in to YouTube together on a Sunday morning because they happen to have the same religious beliefs but a community in which people see no difference at all between their own interests and those of their brothers and sisters – a community in which lives as well as things are literally shared. The focus both on the contributions of individual believers and the distribution of resources emphasises the point that the basic characteristic of life in the Holy Spirit is not individualism but unity. It’s a vision of peace and gladness – the impression you get is of a peaceful daily rhythm of prayer and domestic life – the first missionary enterprise of the church is successful and even idyllic. Luke, of course, may be exaggerating things just a little, but we get the point.
And the point is this – that this possibly slightly idealistic vision of the Church at its very beginning is an echo of the way Jesus announces his mission right at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. Jesus uses a prophecy from Isaiah - the idea of the year of the Lord’s favour which reverses the fortunes of the lost and the least and the last - and he says that his mission is good news for the poor. And so in Luke’s gospel, Jesus consistently preaches and demonstrates a model of God’s kingdom in which forgiveness and restoration for God’s people is equated with radical reversal of the status quo. But we have to wait until here in the sequel of Luke’s amazing story, in the Acts of the Apostles, to see it actually happening – because the utopian model of the kingdom that Luke’s Jesus promises is only possible on the other side of the empty tomb. The kingdom Jesus promises can only grow into reality when people nurture it and believe in it and make sacrifices for it. If Luke’s description of the Church in today’s reading sounds a bit exaggerated, then it might be that we are still working on it.
Well another vision of what the Church should be like as the community of Jesus’ disciples comes to us this morning in the reading from St John’s gospel where Jesus tells us that we are sheep and he is the shepherd. Jesus is referring to Isaiah again here, specifically Isaiah chapter 40, though with a few differences. This is one of the passages in the New Testament that Christians find the most comforting, and perhaps like many Christians you immediately call to mind an image of Jesus the Good Shepherd with a lamb across his shoulders. The passage tells us that we are cared for, and that we are individually known by God. Yet the picture is not quite as passive and comfortable as it might first seem. Because the sheep have got an active role to play in this relationship! Ancient shepherds really did lead their sheep like this, relying on the fact a few of the hand-reared sheep would recognise and follow them - and the even more important fact that sheep are animals that instinctively follow each other, they stay together for safety. So the question for us as Jesus’ non-woolly sheep is whether we know Jesus’ voice, and also whether we trust each other well enough to go in the same direction. And of course that’s something we have a bit of difficulty with.
Incidentally, even though the shepherd Isaiah writes about carries the lambs, Jesus doesn’t have any such mollycoddling in mind! He leads the sheep into the safety of the fold at night but in the morning he shoos them out again - the Greek word in the text, exago, is the same word that the Gospel writers use elsewhere for the chasing out of demons. The main point of the shepherd analogy the way Jesus uses it is that he is the gatekeeper - through him we come and go, we get the sustenance that gives us life and we herd together in the community that gives us life. But we don’t get to stay in the warm and comfy sheep-fold - every morning we get pushed back out again into the world. Jesus as the shepherd gives us our identity as a flock, but as the flock we called, first and foremost, to follow the ways that lead to life, and to do it not as a collection of individuals but together, in cooperation. So the good shepherd image has more than a passing resemblance to the ideal picture of the Church painted by Luke.
So, what does Luke’s utopian vision mean for us? If it doesn’t quite work as a blueprint for what the Church today should look like, is this vision of the Church as a community of friends who share their lives still relevant for us in our hyper-individualistic culture?
Well, both Luke’s vision of the Church and the Fourth Gospel’s sheepfold analogy give us two very important hints. The first is this – that you can’t be a Christian by yourself. When it comes down to it, the way of love which Jesus teaches us is the only way to be open to the spiritual realities of the world we live in – the way of love which requires us to learn about discipline and self-sacrifice, to become less and less neurotic, less and less self-centred, to become quiet enough to listen to the small movements of our own hearts and sensitive enough to notice the hurts and the hopes of others – in other words acquiring the habits of repentance and forgiveness – the way of love is a path we can only travel in company. That is why the very first images of conversion in the New Testament are about community and radical sharing.
The second hint is this – that growth in this way of love is organic –for those who wish to grow spiritually the reality is that love needs to be nurtured, slowly, deliberately, and for a lifetime. There is no fast lane, no hyperlink to click for life in the spirit, instead, it’s the path of steady and lasting fidelity. The community we see in the book of Acts reflects the reality that learning and teaching, praying together, discerning the common good, encouraging one another, sacrificing something for one another and sharing the intimate spaces of everyday life are the only sure-fire recipe for spiritual growth, the only sure-fire recipe for a Church that really wants to be a place where God’s kingdom can take root.
The vision of God’s kingdom that Jesus adopts at the beginning of his ministry, and that Luke describes as the ideal form of the Church probably isn’t a reality anywhere in the world. But then Jesus has a habit of claiming things about God’s kingdom that just aren’t happening in the world around us, and then challenging us to believe that they are possible. And it’s important for us to name the difference between the present reality of our life together, where we are as the Church and where we are called to be – because that gap is the space where transformation becomes possible if we dare to believe that Jesus is telling the truth – that credibility gap is the creative space where – if we pay attention to one another and encourage one another and continue to build a vision together of what it means to be God’s people in this place – we will see for ourselves that God’s Holy Spirit is at work.