April 8, 2018: The Spiritual practice of community by Rev. Rhian Walker (Acts 4: 32-33)

When I was in my twenties, I returned from doing a Masters degree abroad, with the idea of becoming an academic totally and utterly dashed. I returned to Victoria, which is not a hotbed of well-paid employment at the best of times, during an economic downturn and without a concrete plan for my future. Let’s just say that in terms of my bank account, I was on the edge of danger. So when I was asked if I wanted to move into this forgettable 2 story walk up, pay $300 a month and share 500 square feet of an apartment with a friend, well I was in no position to say no. I jumped at it. Now this apartment had all the basics, but just those. And It certainly did not have any features that lent to anonymous living, like sound proof floors or walls, or elevators where you could pretend you lived by yourself, or even proper window coverings. No, this was the kind of place where you smelt everyone’s dinner, knew when Lana was fighting with her boyfriend, and when Calvin was fixing his bike. The thing was, in a place that small and intimate, you really have 2 choices: get to know each other and get along, or fight. Despite being a relatively rag tag bag of ages and stages, we did get along. We cooked for each other, held building picnics, fixed each other’s faulty doors and windows, fetched groceries and instead of being annoyed with the music, the loud talking, or the repairs, we seemed to embrace and celebrate it.

I don’t know what make me move exactly, but I am pretty sure it was status. “I Should” get a bigger place, “I Should” get some independence, “I Should” look like I am climbing the aspiration ladder. What a lonely trade I made with that move… Instead of sharing everything, I shared nothing, and received my portion of that in return.

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”

In today’s passages we have writings about what a Christian spiritual community or church should look like and behave like, particularly now that we have the event of the Resurrection.  We get something very tangible and practical after the Resurrection: how to re-form and live in Christian community together, how to live out the radical values of Christianity together. And there are some striking features about this community: they freely share their wealth with each other, holding all things and property in common. They practiced a radical generosity: there was not a needy person among them. They made their lives a testament to the resurrection: to new life, to life after old systems of oppression and division are smashed open, and instead lived as “one heart and one soul”. It’s beautiful!

The ideal being held up is a community aligned with a shared mission, a shared purpose and shared values. It is a community that is radically generous instead of generous within the bounds of security and maybe even common sense.  And I think it is easy to dismiss this passage and say “Well, it was easy for them, they had little to lose, they all lived in neighbourhoods that they grew up in so they were well connected and hey, they didn’t have much to give up anyway,”but actually I would argue that they had more to lose: they were trapped by class and a strict Empire, half of them had left one fringe religion for a very fringy religion, many of the new disciples did come from different cultures so no, they didn’t get any easier break in making this a reality than you and I would, likely less in fact. But what they do that makes this possible is change the conversation from the bottom line of survival and accumulating “enough”, to one of believing the bottom line that God is the foundation of love, that love is the currency we need to not simply trade in, but give away abundantly. Their belief in God translates into actions that say “yes, God is here with us, yes we believe with our very lives that God wants equality for all, that God wants us to share God’s abundant love with each other.” Phew…it’s quite an out-there idea when it is a practice, instead of a idea.

As I get older, I realize that the great sin in my life is the fear of lacking wealth and the comfort and status it brings. I look generous on paper, my tax return shows healthy donations and I host gatherings in my community and pitch in to help neighbours. But it’s always giving I can afford. And I wonder how generous that really is? And how faithful that really is? This may not be the case for you and I know there is a huge disparity between incomes and resources here in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, but no matter where you are at on that spectrum, I do think Western culture has a terrible tendency to to reduce relationships down to a bottom line: I give of my time, my resources or myself only so much as long as I am fine, I am comfortable, I am secure. I wish that worked. It would be pretty neat and tidy. But there is no bottom or end to that craving for security. Without a rigourous spiritual practice we don’t practice trusting that God will give us enough. That we need more of love, and less of money. And that is truly so against the grain of our culture, that you almost look crazy if you try to practice what the early Christian communities tried to do, this idea of shared property and goods: you look naive and fool-hardy at the very least, but dangerous at the very worst.

In Scripture we are told that our very lives and actions can be a testament to others of the concrete glimpses of the power of God’s transforming presence in this world. We don’t need to go around looking for miracles or transcendent spiritual experiences, but rather we are called to behave as if the world is already transformed by God into the world we long for. And if we look around, we can see those glimpses: sustainable food movement, me too movement, student protests, micro finance, etc., these are all based on ideals that speak to our desire to be a planet that is just, peaceful and loving, that treads more lightly, that shares what we have, that doesn’t turn a blind eye to suffering. Here in Vancouver we have the Vancouver Co-Housing project, which tries to model values that those early Christians might have recognized: They co-own units as a community and try to share other resources like lawn mowers and baby sitters and dinners as a way to live out shared values and a larger hope for intimate community. These efforts can feel small and imperfect, or slow moving and challenging, but they are happening, always on the margins, on the edges of our culture until one day they transform it.

So in this post-Resurrection time, how are we going to show each other and our neighbours that we really do believe, crazy as it may seem, that a world of peace, love and justice is actually real. That is it possible.  Because “church” is not just a place on Sunday, not just a worshiping body, certainly not just a private spirituality, but rather a force that takes action in the world. It’s us taking action in the world, it’s us being radically generous, it’s us being forgiving and peaceful when the hand you offer is struck. So for you, maybe it is to look around your neighbourhood and realize how isolated folks are, and what you might do about it. Maybe just hosting a dinner with at least one neighbour once a month would be a start. Or maybe it is when you walk by homeless people on your way to work and to not think “I hate this, it makes me sad but what can I do?” and to instead join a charity board that is working on this, or buy each person you pass a coffee and muffin and bless them with some care. Or maybe it is to give things away, donate more, stand up with people on the margins more, forgive our families that much more, find a way to deal with Trump without hate a bit more because that is our neighbour and we know what Jesus asks us to do about our neighbour, don’t we.

Our practice of church post-resurrection is to harness the power of our communities and our very lives to change this broken and beautiful place we live in. It is to have the courage to go against the grain and to use our resources, monetary and not, to commit that belief into action. If we want the change in the world we long for, let’s model it. Let’s live together in unity in the hope of that world that we want to bring forth. Amen