Vibrant and healthy Christian communities have two key characteristics. Healthy Christian communities have a tolerance for doubt – also prioritize human pastoral needs over doctrinal beliefs. These, like our own Anglican-Episcopal communities are communities where belonging comes before believing. To paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
Being Christian adds nothing to being human, being Christian puts being human into practice.
John the Evangelist gives us the earliest account of Christian community in his description of events taking place over two consecutive Sunday evenings following the death of the man Jesus and his resurrection as the Messiah or the Christ. He begins:
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Temple police, Jesus came and stood among them – he showed them his hand and side and said ‘Peace be with you’. Then he puffed into them saying ‘Receive the Holy Spirit”.
It’s not doors with metal locks – but hearts barricaded by fear that Jesus penetrates. In showing them his wounds, Jesus demonstrates to them – look it’s me, Jesus, and I’m real – I’m not an apparition. Despite the obvious – that his post resurrection body seems not to be constrained by the normal material limitations – his wounded and scarred human flesh remains the primary identifier of his resurrection body. His wounds show the continuity between before and after – joining his crucified human body with his resurrected body. The post resurrection Jesus embodies a continuity between the divine and the human. From now on being human is to be most like God!
Jesus then breathes on them. John uses the Greek pneuma for which a better translation in this context is puff or inflate. Jesus puffs the Spirit into them. From pneuma we derive the English adjective pneumatic to describe the action of puffing up or inflating with breath. In Genesis, God puffed breath-wind-spirit into Adam’s nostrils. Jesus puffs the Holy Spirit – the breath-wind-spirit of God into his deflated disciples – inflating them into a pneumatic and dynamic community.
John goes on to depict Jesus’ return visit to the disciples one week later – a visit seemingly to encounter Thomas who had earlier announced his doubt – a need for physical proof before he could believe – earning him the epithet doubting Thomas. The epithet tells us something about the Tradition’s ambivalence towards doubt. But Thomas wasn’t the only one to doubt human hearsay. Remember the male disciples had only earlier in the day refused to take Mary and the women’s word that they had seen the risen Lord.
I think that curiosity is a prime requirement in the spiritual life. There can be no curiosity where there is no doubt. It seems that for Jesus, doubt is not the barrier. The barrier is anxious fear. We might conclude from John 20 that faith’s opposite is not doubt but fear – for the seeds of faith are sown in the fields of doubt.
John 20 relates how Jesus’ breathed into the disciples inflating them with his spirit and propelling them onto the pages of the New Testament as a dynamic community. In John, the inbreathing of the Spirit and the resurrection appear to be coterminous. It is Luke who translates this experience into an ordered chronology of sequential events: death-resurrection-ascension-spirit inflation.
The canonical arrangement of the N.T. books place the gospel of John between the gospel of Luke and Luke Acts. It makes some sense to keep all the gospels together. But it breaks the continuity of the Lukan narrative –for Luke’s is a story in two parts. The first part concerns the life and times of Jesus. The second concerns the life and times of the early community that emerges to continue Jesus’ the mission and purpose in the world.
In Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, we have his vivid firsthand portrait of the community of the first followers of Jesus. We are surprised to find that within a short space of time the community emerging from the ragbag band of followers displays the signs of an incredible pneumatic vitality. We are further surprised to note their shared heartbeat -a bold generosity and willingness to risk departing from conventional ways of living – a community where belonging is as important as believing.
Everyone participates. Everyone dares to show solidarity. Because everyone belongs. Matt Skinner
There is no reason to seriously doubt Luke’s overall depiction of a transformation in the followers of Jesus into a community imbued with Jesus’ sense of mission and purpose. They are not just motivated by the memory of the man they loved and have now lost. They are now empowered –pneumatically inflated with the breath of his spirit. The memory of love and loss becomes an-every-moment experience of radical transformation. For the first Christians – as Paul’s letters to his fledgling communities corroborate – because the power of the risen Christ has turned every normal expectation on its head, they’ve become charged with an energy to live in a radically new way.
Everyone participates. Everyone dares to show solidarity. Because everyone belongs.
Matt Skinner notes that something greater than charity and mission was operating in the community Luke depicts; believers are living out a commitment to belong to one another by addressing the impediments that get in the way of doing so. The key to their solidarity has something – though not everything – to do with their use of money and the reordering of resources.
Willie James Jennings, the current professor of theology and Africana Studies at Yale, knocks the proverbial nail on the head when speaking of Luke’s depiction of the Jerusalem community he notes that:
We see money being used to destroy what money is usually used to create: [that is] distance and boundaries between people.
It’s worth noting Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s comment again- that being Christian adds nothing to being human, being Christian puts being human into practice.
At the heart of the early Christian transformation in shared consciousness lay the radical practice of putting being human at the heart of being Christian. In the Classical World this was a radically new approach to living – one that enabled small communities of relatively poor people to become magnets of attraction. Placing being human at the heart of being Christian triggered a second radical shift in the way these early communities organized themselves to achieve what they saw as their purpose in the world. Resources, i.e., money and access to commodities – were no longer the marks of division between the haves and have nots. They became instead, tools for the fostering of solidarity –of a shared investment in community. The early Christian communities emerge as centers where flourishing flows from mutual interdependence where individual flourishing depended on everyone flourishing.
From each according to gifts – to each according to needs.
The early Christian picture Luke paints for us – amply corroborated by Paul’s letters to his missionary communities may not be exactly a translatable blueprint for us in 2022. But in the challenges facing us today we see how putting being human at the heart of being Christian – together with a more equitable distribution of resources becomes once more a radical manifesto for living.
In 2022, we face three mammoth challenges: pandemic recovery, ecological collapse, and the resurgence of sacred violence. Does the Easter story still empower our transformation? Are we capable of a transformation in consciousness like that experienced by the first Christian communities? Over the next weeks of the Easter Season – some 50-days in all – though seven have now passed – even if definitive answers continue to elude us – we will explore the implications that flow from asking such questions.