SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
1 John 1:1—2:2
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, with joy we celebrate the day of our Lord’s resurrection. By the grace of Christ among us, enable us to show the power of the resurrection in all that we say and do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”
The above quote comes not from any bomb throwing anarchist, but from the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis in his recent encyclical Evangelii Gaudium. Rarely does a mainline religious leader (and the Roman Catholic Church is about as mainline as mainline gets) criticize so directly the American sacred cow of capitalism. American protestants in particular accept the tyranny of the market as a given. The only real dispute between so called liberals and so called conservatives is over the degree to which the government can or should regulate this market. That the market itself might be at the root of inequality, poverty and oppression is simply unthinkable in our culture. Belief in the benevolence of the market is as firmly established in our country’s psyche as the Pledge of Allegiance.
None of this really makes sense. For example, I have always found it passing strange that conservative evangelical Christians, who believe so fervently in the reality of original sin, can believe just as fervently that unregulated markets driven only by “self-interest” can produce a just society. Just as doubtful is the unquestioned (though never clearly articulated) assumption of upright, white and ever polite mainline protestants that, with enough regulation and tweaking, an economy driven by greed and consumption can be forced to serve the public good. The argument between these two not-so-extremes is really about regulating the beast, not killing it. We are thoroughly convinced that greed driven markets are essential to economic health and that no society can function without them.
The treatment I sometimes gave my younger sister is not one of my proudest memories. She is three years younger than me and when she was just learning to play board games, I induced her into a game of Monopoly. I convinced her that we should make a rule dividing up the properties on the board. I promised not to buy Baltic and Mediterranean Avenues (a good deal because they were cheap and affordable) if she, in turn, promised not to buy Boardwalk and Park Place. Everyone who is familiar with Monopoly must realize that this arrangement made it nearly impossible for my sister to win. To her credit, my sister discovered in short order that she stood no chance of winning the game as long as I was allowed to dictate the rules. Would that we were all so quick on the uptake! After all these years, we still haven’t come to realize that the capitalism game is rigged against us. We are like Charlie Brown running forward for the hundredth time to kick the football held by Lucy. This time, he thinks, old Lucy will come through. This time she will keep her promise to hold the ball in place. But, predictably, Lucy pulls the ball away at the last moment and poor Charley Brown cannot understand why he is once again lying flat on his back and the ball has gone nowhere.
The game is rigged. As Pope Francis points out, there is not a thread of evidence to suggest that the prosperity of the rich benefits the poor. Our experience for the last several decades indicates just the opposite. Today the health of the economy is measured in terms of what the Dow, Nasdaq and S&P are doing. While the markets are generating fabulous amounts of wealth for those with money to invest in them, pay rates remain stagnant and jobs paying sustainable wages and offering benefits are on the decline. Public resources such as highways, public transportation, libraries, schools and museums all decay even as bonuses for investment bankers soar. Billions are appropriated for military buildup, tax breaks are doled out to oil giants even as food stamps for people on the margins are being cut to balance the federal and state budgets. In fact, the free market system is operating exactly the way you would expect-if you believed that human beings are in bondage to sin and cannot free themselves.
On the other hand, if you think that human sin is an antiquated myth left over from the middle ages, if you believe human beings are naturally selfless, if you believe that having more wealth automatically breeds generosity, if you think that global, multinational corporations can be trusted to look out for the well-being of ordinary citizens; then you must be scratching your head and wondering why we are not all rich by now. Furthermore, if all this is what you really do believe, I can only conclude that you have spent your life in a windowless room watching nothing but Hallmark Christmas specials.
Capitalism, not to put too fine a point on it, is a lie. As Pope Francis makes clear, an economy driven by consumer appetites can only drain the earth’s resources, increase the growing gap between the exceedingly wealthy and the desperately poor and create optimal environments for war, crime and terrorism. The global market economy is killing our planet. It cannot be tamed. It cannot be domesticated. An economy that can only thrive on increased consumption is not sustainable. We need an entirely different sort of economy driven by human need rather than human greed; measured by life sustaining production rather than endless consumption; designed to serve rather than enslave human persons.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ means nothing if not that things do not have to be the way they are. We need not be slaves to markets that feed the top 1% and starve the bottom half of humanity. There are alternative ways of being human. Our lesson from Acts gives us a picture of how the resurrection of Jesus Christ reshapes human life and human relationships. Like Pope Francis, Luke challenges our modern notions of property ownership, wealth, consumption and individual rights. Luke shows us what life looks like where the economic priority is human need. Note well, however, that the church in Acts did not set out to reform the empire. Instead, it became a colony for the coming reign of God it proclaimed. As Pope Francis suggests, the church in Acts said a resounding “no” to the imperial economy of exploitation and became a demonstration plot for life under the kingdom of heaven. The church began by learning to live quietly, peacefully and gently in the heart of a violent imperial society. In so doing, it showed the world that Caesar is not the only game in town.
What would happen if our churches found the courage to name the lie of capitalism? What would an alternative congregational economy reformed by the resurrection look like? What would our life together be like if we resolved no longer to be dominated by the market forces driving us to work obscenely long hours and sacrifice our family life, our interests and deepest longings on the altar of the American Dream? I believe these questions are more pertinent now than ever. I applaud Pope Francis for having the courage to raise them for us.
For once I have to commend the lectionary people for including this reading in the Easter pericopies. I have gotten into the habit of asking myself after completing my sermon for Sunday: “OK. So what?” Nowhere is that question more pertinent than during the season of Easter when we celebrate and proclaim Jesus’ resurrection. What does life look like for a people that have put death behind them? How do you live when you know that the one God raised from death is neither Caesar, General Patten nor the American sniper, but the crucified friend of sinners? What does one see looking at a community governed by Jesus’ “new” commandment to love? Luke answers these questions by showing us a community “of one heart and soul;” a community in which “no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common.” Vs. 32.
We mainline protestants, committed as we are to the creed of capitalism, find this passage extraordinarily problematic. For the most part, we dismiss the text as Luke’s effort to portray an “idealized” picture of the early church that had little or no basis in reality. This convenient use of historical-critical exegesis excuses us from interpreting the text “literally” (read “seriously”) and permits us to write it off as literary license or as an early but failed experiment in communal living that the church left behind as it matured. To be sure, it is highly anachronistic to read the Book of Acts (or any other biblical book) as “history” in the modern sense. But it is equally improper to employ modern historical-critical analysis to such texts in order to extract from them interpretations more palatable to our 21st Century sensibilities (and prejudices). As noted earlier, Luke challenges our modern notions of property ownership, wealth, consumption and individual rights. It is disingenuous at best to employ clever (not wise or competent) scholarship to dismiss him.
What does it mean to be “of one heart and soul”? It cannot mean that everyone always gets along. The subsequent chapters of Acts demonstrate that there was in the early church plenty of disagreement, debate, misunderstanding and need for compromise. Yet for all of that, the church managed to hold together. One might argue that Luke’s portrayal is not entirely historically accurate and that the life of the early church was in fact a good deal messier. But again, modern notions of historicity are not a proper tool of measurement when it comes to reading biblical texts. Luke’s story is a testimony to his belief that the Holy Spirit was at work in the midst of the church’s messiness forging a community of faith bearing witness to Jesus. It is much the same as when we confess in our creeds that we believe in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” From a purely historical perspective, one can argue persuasively that the church is not any of those things and never has been. Yet history can neither verify nor disprove the presence of the Holy Spirit at work in the diverse and often seemingly adverse communities claiming to be church, forming a unity that transcends our divisions. That is an assertion of faith.
That said, we get fleeting glimpses of the unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity of the church every so often. The explosive growth of the church in Asia and Sub Saharan Africa across barriers of tribal and national hostility is surely a testimony to the vitality of the Spirit’s unifying power. As I have observed before, intentional communities such as Church of the Sojourners, Reba Place Fellowship and Koinonia Farm point to new and exciting ways of being a “holy” community. A day does not go by in the life of my own congregation where I do not witness acts of compassion born of the sharing of heart and soul. None of this “proves” anything. Nevertheless, it testifies to the difference Jesus’ resurrection is making in the lives of people who believe it.
The literary formula “Behold, how good and pleasant it is” has parallels in Egyptian literature of the “wisdom” genre. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 783. Professor Walter Brueggemann treats this psalm as one of “orientation,” expressing “a confident, serene, settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing Co.) pp. 25, 47. It celebrates the blessedness of family, tribal and national unity using two metaphors. The first is that of anointing with oil. In addition to the cultic function of such anointing, the practice was also an expression of honor and hospitality, “a measure of extravagance and well being.” Ibid. 48. See Amos 6:6; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:46. The second metaphor employed by the psalmist is “dew.” In the often parched landscape of Palestine, the appearance of dew was a rare and welcome weather phenomenon. The poem, says Brueggeman, anticipates the solidarity and harmony of all humanity as it lives without defensiveness in a creation benevolent enough to care for all.” Ibid.
The declaration of the goodness of unity in the psalm complements the practice of that unity to which Luke testifies in our lesson from Acts. Though far from a universal reality, such unity is not merely a utopian ideal. It was experienced at times among the patriarchs and matriarchs, by Israel, by the church in the New Testament and throughout the church’s subsequent history in the monastic movement and through various other intentional Christian communities. These manifestations of life lived among a people of “one heart and soul” give us fleeting glimpses of God’s reign.
Though traditionally ascribed to John, the disciple of Jesus, this letter and the two short epistles following it do not purport to come from anyone by that name. I John does not even appear to be a letter. It lacks both an opening salutation and a closing benediction common to other New Testament epistles. It resembles more a theological treatise or sermon. Though the First Letter of John has close theological and linguistic similarities to John’s gospel, most New Testament scholars believe that the letter was composed by a different author at some point after the gospel was composed. It is possible that I John was composed by “the elder” identified as the author of John 2 and John 3, though this too is disputed. However the authorship question might be resolved, it is evident that the Gospel of John and the three letters of John share a common perspective suggesting that they originated from the same early Christian community.
One cannot help but be impressed with the intense physicality of these opening sentences of John’s letter. What is proclaimed is that which has been “seen,” “looked upon” and “touched.” Vss. 1-3. There is a strong emphasis on the connection of the proclamation to the person of Jesus. This letter is addressed, in part, to counter claims of some persons who “went out from us” and who are evidently denying that Jesus is the messiah. I John 2:18-25. We can only speculate concerning exactly what members of this schismatic group might actually have believed. According to the author of this letter, these folks deny that Jesus has come as messiah “in the flesh” and fail to practice the “new” commandment of love for fellow disciples. I John 4:2-3; I John 3:11-24. For John, orthopraxy goes hand in hand with orthodoxy. Failure to exercise Jesus’ commandment to love fellow members of the church renders one an “antichrist” just as surely as does the denial of Jesus as Christ come in the flesh.
John urges his fellow believers to “walk in the light.” Vs. 7. Again, believing in Jesus is not mere passive reflection or assent to correct teaching. It involves not merely seeing the light, but “walking” in it. Recognition of one’s own sin is a byproduct of walking in the light. To continue justifying, rationalizing or denying sin means only that one remains in the dark about the truth. Vs. 8. The light exposes us as we truly are, compelling us to confess our sinfulness and need for forgiveness. But that is only half the story and not even the better half. The light also exposes God as “faithful and just,” eager to “forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Vs. 9. This is reminiscent of the text from John’s gospel where Jesus declares: “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men preferred darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” John 3:19. But Jesus goes on to say that “he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.” John 3:21. The light is essential both for seeing ourselves for what we are and for recognizing God for who God is.
For my more specific comments on this gospel text, I refer you to last year’s post for April 7, 2014. This year I was struck most by the physicality of the resurrected Christ portrayed in John’s gospel. In that respect, my reading is probably influenced by our lesson from I John just discussed. Jesus can be touched and handled. Moreover, he still bears the wounds of the crucifixion on his resurrected body. I think it is incredibly important to recognize that Jesus’ resurrection is not a “happily ever after” ending. The cross reflects Jesus’ determination to “go the distance” for creation. The resurrection is God’s eternal “yes’ to that commitment. Thus, I was more than a little dismayed to discover when the Lutheran Book of Worship came out in print that a critical line to one of my favorite hymns had been sabotaged. The original went:
In every insult, rift, and war
Where color, scorn, or wealth divide
Christ suffers still yet loves the more,
And lives though ever crucified.
The new improved version goes:
In every insult, rift, and war
Where color, scorn, or wealth divide
Christ suffers still yet loves the more,
And lives wherever hope has died.
See ELW # 389. The former version is the stronger and, in my opinion, to be preferred. While Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are a one time, unrepeatable event that fundamentally changed everything, that change is God’s eternal and unalterable identification with humanity. You might call it the seal on the miracle of the Incarnation. God became flesh, remained flesh to the point of death on the cross and now lives eternally in the flesh for us. That is why we see in child refugees coming across our border, victims of genocide in the Middle East and persons caught in the grip of poverty the face of Jesus. That is why the resurrection makes a difference. We cannot engage in behavior that harms our neighbor, directly or indirectly, without wounding Jesus. Jesus remains human, vulnerable and subject to the terrible consequences of our evil. Yet, as even the “new improved” version of the hymn affirms, “he loves the more.”
The witness of Thomas is interesting. Though he did not believe the testimony of his fellow disciples to Jesus’ resurrection, we nevertheless find him in the company of those disciples eight days later. Vs. 26. It appears that Thomas wants to believe even if he can’t quite manage it yet. So he does what any person should do in that circumstance. He hangs out with the folks who do believe, that is, the church. There he finally has the faith producing encounter with Jesus he was looking for. In a sense, then, he believed even before he saw Jesus. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he had the desire to believe. Does that “count” as faith of some kind? If so, it would give an entirely different twist to Jesus’ word to Thomas, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Vs. 29. Could it be that we have been reading this verse all wrong? Could it be that Jesus is not chiding “doubting” Thomas for his lack of faith, but was actually commending Thomas for the faith required to stick with the disciples even though he had not seen the resurrected Christ as they had? I must confess that I have never seen any commentator interpret the text in that way. Nonetheless, I think it is a plausible reading.
Finally, I cannot resist talking a little about verses 30-31 in which John informs us that the whole point of his gospel is “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” vs. 31. I don’t think it is carrying things too far to say that the same could be said of the entire Bible at least as far as disciples of Jesus are concerned. Whatever else the Bible might be, for disciples it is the portal into the heart of our Master. Its purpose is to draw us closer to Jesus, not provide ammunition for culture warriors seeking to keep guns in the hands of true believers and pizza out of the hands of gay and lesbian people.