What It’s About: It’s a hippie commune!
What It’s Really About: Historians and bible scholars will always debate how likely it was that the community was really this happy and egalitarian and communalistic. But it really doesn’t matter; this is how the author of Acts wanted his readers to understand the community. The author of Acts understood that early community of Jesus-followers as idyllic, and this is how he chose to portray that. Christianity in nearly every age has had a tendency to look backward to earlier times to find a more “authentic” expression of the faith, and these verses from Acts are evidence that even in the late first century, the author of Acts felt that impulse. He felt, from his vantage point, that the years in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ death were pure in a way that later times weren’t. And that might be true–or that might simply be the story we tell ourselves. Most mainline Protestant denominations are “brands” that rely on some historical moment for their identities: Lutherans and Presbyterians look to the Reformation, Methodists look to post-Reformation England and missionary journeys to North America, and my own denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), looks backward to frontier revivals in the 19th century and to the book of Acts itself for its restorationist tendencies.
But this passage from Acts should give us pause. How far back can we see? And when we look back, are we simply casting the past in the image of our idealized version of the future?
What It’s Not About: It’s not about economics, as much as we might wish it were. This isn’t a sustained argument for one economic philosophy over another; it’s simply describing the way a group of people lived in the aftermath of a powerful religious event. I’m all for the new monastic movement and all that it promises, but this doesn’t really lay out a plan for that, or even an argument for it. It’s just trying to convey: “These people were very Godly in those days.”
Maybe You Should Think About: The Sunday after Easter is often called “low Sunday” by snarky preachers who want to point out the attendance differential between Easter and the week following. Chances are good that this Sunday you’ll have only the most faithful churchgoers in your congregation. Maybe you should think about how to juxtapose that congregation with this text? After the dust cleared and the confusion and excitement of the resurrection faded, this community in Acts 4 is what was left. How does that sound to these people who have showed up today?
What It’s About: Hippie communes again! Or, at least, the joys of community.
What It’s Really About: It’s really about the most joyful images the psalmist could conjure. Oil running down a beard might seem like a strange image to us today–it makes me want to take a shower–but in Hebrew antiquity it was a joyful and even erotic symbol of power and new beginnings. The dew, too, is a symbol of a new day. So the psalmist is gathering these images that evoke beginnings, and is pointing them toward a communal ideal: what it’s like when people live together in unity.
What It’s Not About: It’s not about going on after you’ve made your point! At three verses, this psalm is short, but it all the more effective for its brevity.
Maybe You Should Think About: This psalm goes well with the Acts text above. They’re both expressions of communal life and unity. Use them together, and maybe something new will come out of them both.
What It’s About: Community, again. And tradition, and fellowship in that tradition.
What It’s Really About: This book is often called a letter, but it doesn’t really look much like a letter. Here, in the first chapter, there is no greeting or anything else that would signal an epistolary genre. Instead, we are launched into a discussion of tradition–what has been handed down from Jesus’ own time to the time of the author. Maybe this is best understood as a sermon, or maybe the opening section incorporates earlier material. At any rate, what is in view here is a kind of inheritance that the author has received from those who came before him (or her). It’s reminiscent of 1 Corinthians 11:23, where Paul makes a similar reference to a tradition handed on. Sometimes, it’s amazing to simply step back and marvel at the long tradition in which we find ourselves–what Hebrews calls “a great cloud of witnesses.”
What It’s Not About: It’s not about darkness and death. Whether the author of this book is the same person who wrote the Gospel of John–and scholars argue both sides of that–this book clearly shares themes with the gospel. And the juxtaposition of life and light is one of the most important of those, and it’s evident right here at the beginning. This is an excellent post-Easter text, in that it points directly to the same kinds of themes that we find even in the prologue of John’s gospel: light shining in the darkness, and the life that comes from God.
Maybe You Should Think About: Tradition (and some other evidence) has this book originating in Ephesus, in western Asia Minor. It might be that the community behind John’s gospel (“the community of the beloved disciple,” as Raymond Brown put it) had moved to that city to escape persecution or the violence of the Jewish War. If that’s the case, it’s fun to imagine–although there might not be much basis for this–that this book is a kind of introduction to the already-existing Christian community there in Ephesus. At some point, several strains of Christianity converged in Ephesus. Maybe this book is an artifact of that meeting?
What It’s About: This is a passage about doubt.
What It’s Really About: This is a passage about faith. It’s not really about doubt. It’s only about doubt insofar as it sets the stage for different kinds of faith. Thomas has been maligned, over the centuries, as a man lacking faith, but he had plenty of faith. He simply had a different kind of faith from the others. Jesus ends this passage by blessing those who believe without seeing, but not to the exclusion of those who believe after seeing.
What It’s Not About: It’s not about “the Jews.” The Gospel of John is one of those places in the New Testament that has been the source of anti-semitism in modern times, and 20:19 is one of the specific places within John where the author’s choice of language has caused Christians over the years to enact violent and even deadly ideologies against Jewish people. Always be careful when preaching these passages, because even if you don’t mean to, you can pass along or reinforce anti-semitic beliefs.
A friend of mine once told me a story of a Jewish youth group that was visiting a Christian church, and the scripture for the day was this one from John. The visit was very warm and cordial, full of interfaith goodwill, until the scripture was read. After that, the mood was icy, and the Jewish group left as soon as it could.
John wrote this verse and others like it out of a particular experience in a particular place and time. The community had encountered friction from synagogue communities, perhaps, or it had moved to a place outside of Judea. Whatever the background of the words, it’s pretty clear to me that John never meant for us to map “the Jews” in the story onto “Jews” in the 21st century, or any other century for that matter. Jesus was a Jew, as were all of his early followers. They were Jewish people who worshipped the Jewish God in the Jewish temple and in Jewish synagogues and who came to believe in a Jewish messiah. They were Jews. Any reading of John 20 has to take this into account.
The word for “the Jews” is not even all that certain. There is a vigorous debate going on among scholars on how to interpret it. For the church, though, the choice is clear. We should always explain that this refers to people who lived and died 2,000 years ago, and surely the fear this text references has long since dissipated. We should say so.
Maybe You Should Think About: This passage is an invitation to the tactile. It’s a call to get out of our heads, and to experience, as Thomas did, the world of faith. Maybe this is a day to introduce something tactile to worship? Believe, yes, but also see.