“And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:43-47, RSV)
Recently, I attended a church gathering in which the attendees were strongly encouraged to re-read the Acts of the Apostles. Acts is the New Testament document which tells the story of the growth of the church in the aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Now, I grew up in a denomination that lived, ate, slept and breathed the Acts of the Apostles — I’ve been there and done that (over and over and over and over again). So the suggestion to re-read this well-worn story only seemed to add to my pre-Lenten fatigue.
Then, last week, the Executive Committee of the Episcopal Church released a draft budget for the three year period between 2012-2015. An avalanche of reaction (not much of it positive!) ensued. Essentially, the draft budget proposes significant increases for all things administrative (Office of Presiding Bishop, Office of President of the House of Deputies, Comptroller’s Office, etc.) plus the continued funding for a “public policy” presence in Washington, DC. Simultaneously, the proposed budget eviscerates funding for such things as Christian Formation, Youth Ministry, Campus Ministry and similar ministries and initiatives previously considered fundamental to our mission as a denomination. The rationale for these cuts is that such ministries can be better provided at a more local level. The problem with this rationale, however, is that, without any sort of lead time, these ministries will be largely “unfunded” (and may well never return in any form).
Plenty of people are writing about the specifics of the budgetary debate. My point here is not to rehash the pros and cons of the proposed budget. The amount of energy I’ve seen unleashed in the social media platforms about that document elicited another response from me: I got out my Bible, opened it to the Acts of the Apostles and started reading. When I got to the verses I’ve posted above, I saw something with a clarity that was absolutely frightening and simultaneously energizing.
The text says (among other things), “…[they] were together and had all things in common…” In the first few days after the outpouring of the Spirit, the newly birthed church — without the benefit of a headquarters or hierarchy, without a funding source or a financial plan, without a strategy or a stewardship statement — did the following things:
1. They kept on believing the Spirit was moving among them (of course the signs and wonders helped!)
2. They sold everything they had and placed the funds in a common treasury for the good of the entire community.
3. They worshipped together in the Temple — keeping up with their prayer life and the study of the scriptures available.
4. They broke bread together — presumably both in the fellowship of shared meals and in the sacred meal of Bread and Wine.
In short, they placed the totality of their faith in God and in one another, even to the point of giving it all away — EVERYTHING! Now I’m not proposing any sort of radical literalism. Further reading of the New Testament demonstrates that, while filled with good intentions, this “sell it all” strategy later turns out to be a reckless longterm financial decision. But what can we learn from these few verses in light of the looming budget debate in the run-up to General Convention 2012?
Perhaps we can begin with a gut check.
Do we actually believe the Spirit is still hovering and brooding and creating over, within and throughout the Church (Episcopal and otherwise)? If we do believe such a thing, then why are we so often fearful, anxious, angry, sad and pessimistic? Why is it easier to see darkness than to see the brightness of Christ’s Light in the world?
What if we became more concerned about the common good and our common mission than about currency? What if we began to think about ways we could invest in real ministry in the communities beyond our doors and spent less time attempting to hoard dollars to preserve buildings which are often little more than liturgical museums and to support ecclesial governing structures that are calcified, stratified and petrified?
Even if we can’t quite let go of our desire to control everything (including the Tempest we call God’s Holy Spirit); even if we can’t quite let go of our fixation with bricks, mortar, committees and commissions, could we at least entertain the notion that a ten day prayer meeting might be more beneficial than a ten day legislative session? After all, the 120 gathered in Jerusalem immediately after Jesus’ ascension prayed for ten days and the next thing we read in Acts, people are spilling out into the streets drunk on the Spirit of God. A few hundred Spirit-drunk Episcopalians on the streets of Indianapolis this summer would definitely be newsworthy…and it might even translate to a revival in ministry and mission the likes of which we’ve never known.
What if we actually started living like we are what we eat in Church on Sundays? What if we became the Body and Blood of Christ in the world?
I’m not suggesting that if we did any of these things our monetary woes would magically disappear. After all, we live in a culture dominated by currency. But I keep praying that a day will arrive when our common life together as Church is more important than our balance sheets. Yup, I know it’s squishy, pie-in-the-sky, touchy-feely stuff. But thank God the 120 had better things to do than debate their budget and all the money they didn’t have. They took to the streets with the Good News, and (as someone reports later in the Acts of the Apostles), “turned the world upside down.” Now THAT’s a mission I can get behind.