The Church, United We Stand

The Church, United We Stand

Easter 2B
Pastor Mitch Coggin April 7, 2024 Easter

The scriptures we read after Easter reflect the shift from the active ministry of Jesus and the disciples to the ministry of the disciples and the faith community that would become the early church. I want us to explore what the church was meant to be and do from the beginning. This impacts our understanding of ourselves and our relationships with Christ and one another.

We will begin with the passage from John’s Gospel. On Easter evening, the disciples were locked away in fear behind closed doors. They were afraid of the Roman Empire and some Jewish leaders. Jesus’ radical message had threatened the traditions that the Jewish people had guarded so carefully for centuries. The threat had not gone away when Jesus was killed and the disciples feared that the Roman army and the Jewish authorities would be coming after them for continuing to follow Jesus’ teachings.

Jesus entered the locked doors in the midst of the disciples’ legitimate fears. In the same way, our fears are legitimate. We don’t know what the future holds. We see shrinking churches, we see churches that close, we see communities of faith that seem to have little impact on our culture. We understand fear. Jesus entered that fear and gave them the authority to make a difference.

Jesus’ greeting was not one of fear, but one of peace. “Peace be with you.” Three times in this passage he gives them this greeting, peace be with you. This is not about who was there or who was not there, Jesus is there to reassure them and tell them what to do after his ascension.Jesus tells them that as the Father has sent him so Jesus sends them. He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

The Church’s business is forgiveness. Forgiveness comes from the heart of God and we enact forgiveness with one another. Jesus says forgive the sins, forgive the wrongs, forgive the mistakes, in other words, he empowers them to hold the community together and not let community divisions or distinctions separate them or tear them apart. They had the authority to choose what they hold on to and what they let go of and forgive. This was their responsibility and in turn our responsibility.

Walter Brueggemann says it so well: The news is not just that God forgives, but that God has created a people to have as its main, single business in the world the forgiveness of sins, the cancellation of debts, the breaking of the power of fear and hate and death in order to start again. Jesus gave them the authority to establish the early church we read about in Acts, emphasizing their relationship with God and one another. Acts of the Apostles described a community that had everything in common and there was not a needy person among them. The people worshiped together in one another’s homes. It was a community of giving and generosity, it was a community of mutuality.

We are given an example in Barnabas, a Greek who came from Cyprus. Because of his great faith, he was renamed Barnabus, which meant son of encouragement. Barnabus sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money to the apostles to illustrate that when the church had a need the need was supplied and the proceeds given back to the community. The early church members knew they needed one another and relied on that unity. They were of one heart and soul and no one was there for themselves. Barnabus is a far different narrative than the contrasting story in the following chapter.

Acts 5 tells of two church members, Sapphira and her husband Ananias, that is not in the lectionary reading. They also sold property and brought the proceeds to the apostles. Verse 2 from chapter 5 reads, “With his wife’s knowledge, he [Ananias]kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet.”

Peter, on behalf of the church, questions the couple and concludes, “you did not lie to us but to God!” The result was they both fell over dead.

Barnabas had a generous heart and acted in unity with the faith community. Anainias and Sapphira cheated and lied. We might imagine that Ananias and Sapphira felt that they did give money to the church but were fearful of not having enough for their own needs. Ananias and his wife were not of one mind and soul. They were ruled by their fears which lead to their sinful behavior.

The first letter of John reminds us to remember the stories of Jesus’ life and resurrection that we have heard, seen, and touched. But rather than only hearing and remembering the stories of faith, now those stories must become personal. Like Barnabas and the early church, we must translate Jesus’ teachings into our own lives.

The writer of this letter points to what happens when we are not encouraging and make decisions that do not consider the greater community of faith. In fact, we are protecting our own interests and protecting our own fears. We read in 1 John that if we say we have no sin, we are really lying to ourselves and to God.

When we are in right relationship with God, we don’t have to pretend that everything in our lives is perfect, Jesus is our advocate and gives us the authority to live in forgiveness. If we are honest with ourselves, we neither walk the walk nor talk the talk but we can be thankful that God is light. God’s light offers to us the greatest source of hope; the light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome.

The Psalm for today is Psalm 133, only three verses. The first verse summarizes our lesson for today.

How very good and pleasant when kindred live together in unity. (Psalm 133:1)

So here is the good news. The Christian community invites us to unity that ends in joy. We have a choice. Anaias and Sapphira chose fear and death; but we like Barnabas can choose to live with one heart and one soul, to maintain our connection with God and one another, forgiving one another, to function as people of faith in our community.