When I was a student, one phrase always sent my spirit sinking, “group work.” Invariably I would be assigned a partner or two who, to my mind, were only there to drag me down or distract my self-esteem by their more finely formed intelligence and work ethic. “Couldn’t we just do these assignments on our own?” I would ask myself. I wanted to be in sole control over anything I had to surrender for the teacher’s scrutiny. So focused was I on the state of my own GPA that I dreaded the idea of having to compete with, or worse still, depend on another. “Surely,” I thought, “real lifewill be a test not of our cooperation but of our self-reliance.”
I think it is safe to say that we live in a culture that suffers, to varying degrees, from this pivotal misunderstanding. While cooperation and mutuality are concepts routinely praised from the political podium, in classrooms, and in many an ideological platform, at the end of the day, we still notice something unsettling: individualism and individual choice, the right to be an island, and the desire for private ownership still guide so much of the world around us as goods in themselves. It is clear that we know we should temper these behaviors, but we still manage to miss the mark. We seem to be uncomfortable working beyond our own, or our community’s, assumptions. We want to be in control.
“Surely real lifewill be a test not of our cooperation but of our self-reliance.”
1 Peter 4:7-11
It’s oftentimes quite fascinating to read the scriptures forensically, that is to search the scriptures like a good detective. If what we’re being presented in a scriptural passage is the answer to a question, or a solution to a problem, or the right way to live and act, what’s the presenting issue? Why does this need to be said, whatever we’re being told? So in the First Letter of Peter – our first lesson today – why are we being told what we are being told? If this is the solution, what’s been the problem? What’s the “back story”?
- “Maintain constant love for one another…” (What’s that about? There’s been a breakdown in love. Love has been patchy, inconsistent, unpredictable.)
- “Love covers a multitude of sins…” (“Sins,” plural. The people around you have been disappointing and disingenuous… repeatedly, which has elicited disdain, not love.)
- “Be hospitable to one another…” (To be hospitable is to be welcoming and generous to others… especially those whom you otherwise find irritating and off-putting. Have space in your heart and space in your home for those whom you could easily distance. Be hospitable.)
- Don’t be “complaining.” (The issue here is not about expressing a complaint, a dissatisfaction, a disagreement. No, the problem is not about a complaint. The issue here is about being a complainer. Having a predisposition that someone or something is always wrong and should be different. The issue here is about a state of being: being a complainer.)
- We’re to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” (So what’s that about?) Peter writes we are to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serving one another with whatever gift each of you has received…” (So each of us is gifted, but not gifted in the same ways. Our gifts are not our possessions. Our individual gifts have been temporarily entrusted to us. We are to be “stewards” of our gifts, not possessors. If we don’t learn about our temporary stewardship of our gifts earlier in life, we will learn later in life… because our gifts are fleeting. Our gifts diminish and then go away.) We’re to be temporary “stewards” of the gifts we’ve received from God. And we’re to use our God-given gifts not to lord over one another but to “serve” one another.
In the calendar of the church we remember today an Egyptian monk named Pachomius, who lived years 290-346. Pachomius was born in a small village in northern Egypt to a family who worshipped the gods of the Pharaohs. As a young man Pachomius was conscripted into military service. His fifth-century biography, the Vita Prima, recalls that where he was billeted, he for the first time met Christians who did “all manner of good… treating [everyone] with love for the sake of the God of heaven.” Pachomius was smitten by the kind and generous camaraderie, the koinonia, of Christian believers, the very thing described in the Acts of the Apostles: “They were of one heart and one soul,” and who essentially practiced three things: these Christians lived together in community, they prayed and worshipped, and they served others. This experience for Pachomius was life-changing. He prayed to this Christian God, promising that he would live his life in the same way. When he was discharged from military service, he was baptized, and for several years was formed in the Christian life by one of the desert hermits.
Pachomius had a series of visions, something he had never experienced before. The visions were about his becoming a monk, but not alone. Christian hermits had already been living in solitude in the Egyptian desert for about 50 years, since the late 3rdcentury. But Pachomius’ visions were about his living as a monk in community. He had as a model the words which we just heard from the Acts of the Apostles: “All who believed were together and had all things in common. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”[i]And “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
Tonight we conclude our Epiphany preaching series on following God’s call, reflecting on the Gift of Community. We are created for relationship, reflecting God’s nature. “Our human vocation to live in communion and mutuality is rooted in our creation in God’s image and likeness. The very being of God is community; the Father, Son and Spirit are One in reciprocal self-giving and love.”[i]
We are created to love mutually, to walk together, share, listen, teach, and encourage. In our brokenness, much can make us feel alienated, disconnected, and cut off. Choosing to turn toward each other to connect, welcome, and share heals and transforms. Life is about transformation, continual progression, ongoing conversion. God continually calls us onward into more together.
Yet we are often stuck in the past. Placed in memories, given labels and expectations. Memories of who we once jostling up against who we are now. Patterns of prior years are powerfully present though the players have changed.
Jesus sent out disciples two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits. Jesus “ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts.” Jesus sent them out with authority and in need, with power and weakness. They needed hospitality from those to whom they were sent. They had to receive and rely on others.
Jesus revealed God not as distant and self-reliant but vulnerable and personal, coming as a baby and dwelling by growing up, living closely with us. In his longest recorded personal conversation, at a well in Samaria, Jesus began by asking for a drink. He was thirsty and had no bucket. Jesus offered good news and connection with his own need.
Hospitality, offering radical welcome, is not only for us to give but essential for us to receive. We Brothers welcome many alongside us in the monastery each week, and this is God’s house. We are all guests receiving God’s sustenance. As a frequent host, it’s hard and healing when I choose to receive hospitality. Being reliant and cared for as a guest furthers my conversion.
Feast of St Philip, Evangelist
I’m intrigued by the question the Ethiopian eunuch puts to Philip in today’s lesson from the Book of Acts. Philip has joined this powerful man in his chariot and beginning with the words of the prophet Isaiah, has interpreted the scriptures and “proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). “As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’” (v.38).
The answer is ‘nothing,’ it seems. And so they stop the chariot, go down into the water, and Philip baptizes him. I suppose Philip might have objected to the fact that this man was a foreigner or suggested that he needed further instruction and formation, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t hesitate at all.
Except that some ancient authorities add another verse following the eunuch’s question in which Philip does add a qualifier. In response to the eunuch’s question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip says, “If you believe with all your heart, you may” and the eunuch responds, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” (v.37) It’s likely that someone added that verse just to make sure that there was some agreed-upon criteria by which candidates would be admitted to the fellowship of the Church.
What makes a community “Christian”? Believing and following Jesus as Christ are of course the basic requisites. But how should a Christian community distinguish itself from other social groups in its pattern of belief and pattern of life? By reminding the church in Corinth that they “are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor 1:2), Paul evidently regarded a Christian community as one whose members are transformed by Christ and uphold the standard of “holiness” (hagiotēs), living a new way of life pleasing and honoring God. Concluding his Gospel with the great commission: “to make disciples of all nations, baptizing . . . and teaching . . . ” (Matt 28:19-20), Matthew was saying to the church in Antioch that a Christian community should focus its mission on “disciple-training” (mathēteia) so that its members may be committed to the Triune God and fully equipped to share Jesus’ commandments with the whole world. What about John the Evangelist? Since the major witness in the Fourth Gospel was nicknamed the “Beloved Disciple” (13:23; 21:7) and Jesus said that his disciples would be properly recognized by their mutual love (13:25), John the Evangelist obviously expected his readers in Ephesus to form a community that would embody God’s love in Christ (agapē) so genuinely that they might testify to the eternal life already granted to them by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. All such visions of community are gems of insights for our life together as a Christian community today.
Who is in the family? Who belongs to us? Devastation by disaster is prompting some politicians to reconsider the good of government aid. If for a hurricane, Garrison Keillor asked last week, why not for cancer?[i] Should not disaster relief and health care be provided for everyone? Should we not expect each to be costly and worth it since we’re all in this together? Hurricanes and health care are just two of many ways our country is divided about who belongs and how we take care of each other.
In our gospel story this evening, Jesus called those who were following him together, and he named twelve of them apostles. These were set apart to be Jesus’ close friends, to receive his further instruction, to be powerfully sent out teaching and healing on his behalf.
Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen. While washing their nets lakeside, Jesus had come along with a crowd. He asked for a boat from which to speak. Then Jesus said: “Put out into deep water and let out your nets.” Simon said: We’ve been out all night and caught nothing! Yet if you say so, I’ll try. Suddenly there were so many fish, Simon had to yell for other boats to help. The boats began to sink because of the fish. Seeing this, Simon Peter fell at Jesus’ knees and said: “Go away, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus said: “Don’t be afraid. From now on, you’ll be catching people.” Simon, Andrew, James, and John then left everything and followed Jesus.[ii]
When I first began to study the lessons appointed for today, I couldn’t help but to think back to one of my favorite commercials from the 1990’s. The setting is just outside a desert fortress where a criminal is tied to a pole and is facing a firing squad. The chief executioner questions the condemned man: “Would you like a blindfold, Messieur? The man answers quickly, “No!” The executioner then asks, “Would you like a cigarette?” Again, the man answers, “No!” Finally, he is asked, “What do you want on your tombstone?” The man pauses briefly to think before answering resolutely, “Pepperoni and cheese!” The commercial was for Tombstone Pizza which not only offered you convenience: a full sized frozen pizza served piping hot in just minutes with all natural ingredients, but also a panoply of choices suited for all tastes.[i] As Americans, we LOVE choices! We do not like to be boxed in with no options. We want to make the decision with the most concise information and with as little serious discernment as possible. We are highly individualistic and want to feel like every option is personal, tailored specifically for our convenience.
Today we remember Antony of Egypt, the founder of Christian monasticism, who moved out into the desert alone to pray. When Antony emerged from the desert and learned of a great persecution of the church, he returned to the city and cared for those in trouble. Later he returned to the desert but many people came out to see him and hear his wisdom. Judges repeatedly called Antony down to the city to advise them in their rulings.
Solitude for prayer, for focusing on relationship with God, is key to our life and what we offer on retreat. Monasticism like ours is life shared together, a company of friends who prioritize friendship with Christ.