Some questions for us to think about in the season of Pentecost: What does it mean to be a member of the community? How do we hold ourselves accountable to each other within the community? How is the community as a whole, and each individual member of it, accountable to God?
The Gospels tell us that Jesus called a small group of disciples during his lifetime and that he promised them power if they put their trust in him. He told them that they had one commandment of his to fulfill, namely to love one another as he loved them (John 13:34-35). This fellowship was temporarily broken when Jesus was arrested and put to death, but by his resurrection and his repeated appearances to his disciples, Jesus re-called them into a group centered around him (Acts 1:1-3). Finally, as he left them to return to the Father, he promised them that the Spirit would soon come to change their lives—it would mold them into a community which became the Church
In Luke’s description of the day of Pentecost, it is important to notice that the Spirit came upon all those who were assembled (Acts 2:1-4). Peter may emerge as the spokesperson in the confrontations with the outside community, but whatever ecstatic experience was given, it was given to the whole assembly. Henceforth, what we will later call “the early Church” in Jerusalem would be a community bound by their belief that Jesus was the Messiah and empowered equally by the visitation the Spirit. As the book of Acts continues, we repeatedly find that new converts who hear and believe the proclamation that Jesus is Lord are also given the Holy Spirit (Acts 10: 44-47) – meaning that this community shares a like gift which creates their identity. From the very beginning, the Church proclaimed–as we do in our baptismal ceremony–that we believe there is
One Body and one Spirit;
There is one hope in God’s call to us;
One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism;
One God and Father of all. (BCP, 299)
The essence of the community, therefore, is characterized by its oneness in Christ.
Acts goes on to describe how the very earliest members gave up their earthly goods and possessions and shared their wealth among all members of the community (Acts 2: 44-45). This had the effect of eliminating barriers among the members of the community: rich vs. poor, haves vs. have-nots, entitled and privileged vs. needy and deprived—all were made equal within the community. It was as if the long-awaited Jubilee of the Lord had finally been realized in the egalitarian nature of the Church community (cf. Leviticus 25: 10-17). Although we have no idea how long such an idyllic situation existed among the members of the Church, the consequences for the community were amazing. No one considered that anything was their own, and therefore the implements of power which so often reserves privilege or prestige to one person or group at the expense of others was absent.
Lest this sounds too good to be true, the first phase of building the community which would become the Church began with equal empowerment for all members. Imagine if all the familiar pyramid-like structures of power and privilege were replaced by an ever-growing circle of people standing shoulder to shoulder as brothers and sisters, all serving one Lord and serving each other solely out of the love and regard for that person’s needs! Idealized or not, that would serve as a worthy model of the Christian community.
Most communities have rights of initiation; the early Church also adopted baptism as its right of initiation. Baptism expressed repentance and the death to someone’s former life, and resurrection and rebirth into a new life in Christ. This new life was not solitary, but social, allowing the newly-baptized to join in the company of others who prayed for one another, who cared for one another, and who demonstrated by loving acts that they were truly all children of one God.
I write about these aspects of community because it serves to remind us of the standard to which we are called by our baptism and by our continuing life together. As we consider ourself a community striving to be what we were called to be, we are not closing our hearts and minds to those outside the Church, whether our own local parish or the wider world we share with all of God’s children. But it is important, especially as we celebrate the season of Pentecost, to take time to reflect upon ourselves and to ask honestly whether we are the community described above.
First, do we acknowledge that we have been “called” by the Spirit to be part of the Body of Christ and to belong wholeheartedly to our Lord by our membership within that sacred mystery called the Church? Do our acts honor the Lord above all else, especially by demonstrating our love for one another and for our neighbor? Do we turn away from anything which would give honor or prestige to some members, especially at the expense of others? And by our prayers and with our hearts, do we seek what is best for any and all members of this community, leaving no “outcasts,” but always connecting and affirming others in their life in Christ? Are we able to be a model of forgiveness and love, so that we be a sign of God’s reconciling love to and for the world?
Let us together in the power of the Spirit seek and serve Christ in all persons, and in all things rejoice to be part of the fellowship and community which lives to exalt the Lord and to proclaim by our words and acts the grace which God has shown to us through Jesus Christ. So let it be!