In the book of Acts, you have stories of the first new followers of post-resurrection Jesus, the first stories of mass conversions, and the first stories about people gathering as the church.
Sometimes, those of us in churchy world look to this story as a foundational story. We look to how the early church behaved and said, “We should be like that! They were all on the same page. They had unity!”
And then we look at what they did and say: “We can do it too! We can repent and be baptized and believe that Jesus is Lord! We can devote ourselves to the apostles teaching and to fellowship, to breaking bread and to prayer. We can do all those things! We might not gain thousands of new people join our church in a day, but hey, we can be faithful and do what we’re supposed to do.
And then we come across these sentences: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.”
Errr…. Yeah, about that one.
But, we’re generous, right? We give money to the church, we give money to organizations building wells around the world, we sponsor kids to go to school, we send money when there’s a natural disaster… But, I will venture to say almost none of us sell our property and possessions and give to anyone in need, and none of us hold everything in common with other followers of Jesus here at Grace.
We just kind of want to be a bit like the first church, not 100% like it.
I was pondering this text this week, and I got to thinking about my own finances. Ash and I are like many of you, and through our jobs we have pension plans to plan for retirement. I think our retirement date is something ridiculous like 2051, but hey, save when you’re young! Ash and I are also like many of you and we have small children. So every month we squirrel away some money for to put into an RESP for our kids, because I’m sure the cost of university tuition will be something ridiculously high in 2028, when Arianna graduates from high school. Let alone how much weddings will cost in 20 years.
So, I was pondering this text, and I’m supposed to share my retirement money and my kids’ education money with anyone who has need? Ha! Right. That’s funny. No. Actually, my exact words were “Get your dirty paws off my kids’ tuition.” I’m going to be generous and give money where I can, but nobody’s touching my kids education money. And I’m definitely not selling my house, thank you very much.
Now, one of you may come along and tell me, “Look! The Bible says that we should do this! The first church did it! Even Jesus says so when he tells the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions and give to the poor!”
If one of you theoretically said this to me, I’d probably get defensive and say: “That doesn’t apply to me! You’re interpreting Scripture wrong! I give money here and here and here, and I give my time, and I even gave someone a ride to the doctor this one time!”
And then the response might be: “But you could be doing more! You could be giving more! You could be more holy!”
And now theoretical me and theoretical you are in a theoretical shouting match as to what we’re supposed to believe and how we’re supposed to live. Sounds like fun, right?
Now, conventional wisdom would say this: If everyone would just agree, then we’d have unity. If we all agreed that we’re supposed to sell our houses and give to the poor, or if we all agreed that we can own houses and still be faithful, then we’d all be on the same page and we’d have unity.
But this doesn’t happen. Well, it might actually happen with us not selling our houses, but in reality, I think we’re all over the place with what we believe and how we live.
Some of us give a certain percentage of our money away. Some give more. Some give less. We’re all over the map.
Some of us are concerned about the increasing militarization of Canada. Others of us, not so much.
Some of us believe in a traditional doctrine of hell. Others of us are okay questioning it.
Some of us believe that we need to be better stewards of the Earth, we so bike places. Others of us drive in our SUVs to get the mail.
Heck, unity is hard enough between a married couple, let alone a family, or even a larger community.
I think, though, that what usually happens is that we simply don’t talk about all the disunity. We don’t want to upset the apple cart. And I get it.
Mel and Audrey and I were talking this week, and we all decided that we weren’t 100% honest in our relationships with our partners. We choose to bite our tongues quite often for the sake of unity. And that’s usually a good thing. Living our lives in constant conflict, or always nagging our each other isn’t very much fun. But we did acknowledge that we do try to live together and love each other, even when we know we disasgree.
I sometimes call this the facade of unity. We act like that we’re all on the page, that we all believe a certain thing, that we all act a certain way, but in reality, we know that’s not the case. Usually, what happens is the people who hold the minority view point choose to keep quiet. And we do this is all our relationships.
And this isn’t always a bad thing. We all have beliefs and actions that we can put into the categories of essential or non-essential, core or peripheral.
For example, CFL kickoff is starting soon, and so we have to start making some football jokes. Ash is a Roughrider fan, and I am a Blue Bombers fan, and our teams are bitter rivals. One time, someone asked us how in the world we could be married to each other and cheer for rival teams. My answer was: “Well, I made a top 10 list of things I wanted in a spouse, and CFL team preference didn’t quite crack the list.”
But what happens if we disagree? How do we find unity in the face of disunity? (Mel did tell me this week that I’m kind of ruining a great text. The first believers, as we read, WERE on the same page. They were of one mind. But it didn’t last very long. And here I am already jumping ahead, skipping the good stories and focusing on when it all comes apart. Sorry about that.)
But here’s a story that has stuck with me.
One of my spiritual director friends was staying at a monastery in California. The monks there had all taken vows of poverty, they owned nothing, held everything in common, and worked tireless for the poor of their city. In some ways, they were very much like the first believers.
And then, one day, they received a visitor. He drove up in a bright red Ferrari. And 2 monks went out to greet him.
On one side, vow of poverty and service. On the other, hundreds of thousands of dollars spent as one of most flagrant displays of unnecessary wealth in our capitalistic society.
The monks spoke first.
“Wow. Nice car. Can you pop the hood?”
My friend couldn’t believe it. Here, you had two diametrically opposing worldviews, and there was no condemnation from one to the other. In fact, they were celebrating the beauty of the car, which is a fairly adequate symbol for what the monks consciously rejected.
They were unified about the beauty of the car. But not the ideologies or worldviews or belief systems behind it.
Unity in the midst of disunity.
How do we live together when we disagree? How do we have unity in the face of disunity?
Sometimes, in churchy world, we have this phrase, or cliché, that we’ve developed on how to live together when we disagree. Sometimes we say, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” You may have heard it. It’s meant well, but often it comes across like naming what we think is sin someone else’s life and telling them to go and fix it. Some people might it telling the truth in love, others may call it judging. It’s like telling the guy with the car, “I love you, but that Ferrari is sin.” I heard it said once that every time we use the word “but” in a sentence, it’s like we cancel out everything said before it. “I love you, but” sounds an awful like conditional love to me.
I actually think the phrase it’s a bunch of malarkey and quite unhelpful. And I think I’m being generous with my words. Jesus never said, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Jesus said, “Love the sinner and deal with your own sin. After you’ve dealt with your own sin, then you can deal with your neighbours.” If you are wondering where in the Bible it says that, it’s a paraphrase of Matthew 7 by Tony Campolo.
3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
Love the sinner, hate your own sin.
This is one of the reasons why I love being part of a faith community that centers itself on following Jesus. Our job isn’t to offer judgement towards the people who own Ferraris, although I often do. Our job is to name and work on the greed in our own hearts. Because I can’t control what other people believe or do. I can’t control what you do or believe, and you can’t control what I do or believe. Heck, I can’t even control what my kids do, and they’re 1 and 3 years old.
But I can always, always tap into what’s going on inside of me.
And here’s what I like about working on my own soul… To the degree that we are transformed, the world will be transformed. To the degree that we are healed, the world is healed.
Maybe unity isn’t that far off after all.
Jesus, help us live in peace.
From our blindness set us free.
Fill us with your healing love.
Help us live in unity.
Many times we don’t agree
on what’s right or wrong to do.
It’s so hard to really see
from the other’s point of view.
Jesus, help us live in peace.