Thursday, April 19, 2012

Word Made Flesh

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday of Easter includes Acts 4:32-35, I John 1:1-2:2, and John 20:19-31

No other world religion makes the fleshly claim of Christianity, that God should choose to wrap divine being in the body, mind, and spirit of a human being; that the Word by which all creation came into being should be made flesh.

Incarnation, we call this doctrine. Notice its DNA all over our readings today. Jesus to Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” The apostle John writing his primer of Christian faith: “We declare to you… what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands… this life was revealed, and we have seen it…”

And, as if the incarnation of God in Jesus hasn’t been shown seated deeply enough in its appeal to the human race, a claim is made in the Book of Acts that goes to another deep place in the human psyche, that visceral place of private ownership of real estate.

We must not miss the exquisite timing, that we should hear this apostolic story on April 15th. The day our tax returns are due is when we hear the claim that no one in the first-century Jerusalem church claimed private ownership of any possessions.

It is said of the Roman imperial tax system that it wasn’t based on earning or selling, but on breathing. If you lived within the emperor’s reach, you were taxed—but apparently our apostolic forbears did not have to report capital gains.

It is also said by at least one well-regarded church historian that there’s not much evidence that the early church actually lived up to this standard of everything owned being held in common. This may have been the ideal, but how much was it practiced? In the Hebrew Bible we find a command from God that every fiftieth year should be a year of jubilee, marked by emancipation of slaves; but it’s not clear whether this was honored. Here, the Jerusalem church is distinguished by what happened on the fiftieth day after our Lord’s resurrection, such outpouring of God’s Spirit that the ragtag apostolic band was ignited and fused in one heart and soul, manifesting powers and gifts and radical commitment, an example being this pure socialism we hear about today. Is it the New Testament’s version of jubilee, a perfect ideal to profess but too hot to handle?

Well, consider that what we heard today is the second time that the Book of Acts makes the claim. Earlier, in chapter two, we hear, “(The Jerusalem Christians) devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 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. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47)

Why tell about this community of goods twice in four chapters, unless it was based on something that actually happened?

“See how these Christians love!” their urban neighbors are reported to have exclaimed, impressed by something costlier than table fellowship. It was the Christians’ distribution system, their readiness to help people in crisis, “to each as any had need.”

Did it last long, this community ownership of goods that positioned the church to engage the world? The history of the primitive church doesn’t tell us, but we do spot it again, in time, as the monastic movement embraced poverty as one of its cardinal vows, creating an ongoing tradition of communal ownership that was, at its best, geared towards caring for the poor and the visitor as if each were Christ himself.

And when you consider the source of this dedication to higher dreams than home ownership, wasn’t it he himself? “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals,” he instructed his seventy disciples as he sent them out to prepare the way for his public tour to heal and teach, to elevate the poor and deflate the rich. As he countered the culture as a mendicant Messiah, so his followers are to lay at the feet of the apostles the wherewithal to proclaim good news of the incarnate God having his way on earth as in heaven, and to do this proclaiming as evangelists with a double major in practical theology and economics.

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus says this to all his disciples, promoting us all to the A Team. “You mean to me what I mean to my Father. You are as essential to my mission as I am to his. You are the next level of the incarnation, I in you and you in me. As I have been sent, so I send you.”

That line is the jewel in the crown of our Gospel story today, even though Thomas usually catches the preacher’s attention. There stands Thomas, resisting belief in the superabundance of the grace of God that is stronger than death, and what his fears really prevent is his deployment as an apostle in mission for Christ.

There is another noteworthy coincidence about all this incarnation and its implications for our financial stewardship. Our parish budget this year, our best sense of how God is calling and sending us into the world, is running a deficit of about $25,000. To give that some perspective, that’s 5.5 % of our total budget.

And this is after a successful appeal with half our households increasing their pledges, and a dozen new pledging households. That’s a lot to be thankful for!

At the same time, an unusually high number of deaths and moves last year took a red pen to our numbers, and some of our elder members haven’t been able to maintain their generous giving. While we’re close to the bone on the expenditures side, we’ve had to step up our funding of health insurance, a pricey thing, as we all know.

You don’t often hear about the parish budget from this pulpit. Why am I mentioning it today? Because anyone who examines our budget will notice that over and above the nearly $50,000 that St. John’s sends to help fund our Diocese and our national Church and their outreach regionally and globally, we also have committed some $25,000 to maintain our longstanding voluntary mission grants that help empower twenty-five mission partners, local, national, and global. An orphanage in India. Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity. The Berkshire Food Project. The list is long.

Who can miss the math? Our apostolic generosity involves just about the same number of dollars as our deficit. Because we believe we are called by God to be ready to engage the world, we are not going to erase our deficit by erasing our outreach. Because the apostles’ DNA shows stronger on our parish budget than the red ink, we intend to keep our minds and hearts open to find faithful answers to our need. It’s time to ask that we each take that task home with us today.

That’s about as soft an approach as you can get, compared to those first-century forbears who sold land and houses to empower their outreach. But, just like them, great grace is upon us. We, like they, have received the Holy Spirit that banishes fear. We, like they, are sent by Jesus on his mission, causing his word to be made flesh in our time.