In the community of God’s people
When I arrived at Roseville, something over six years ago now, believe it or not, one of the first people that I met was a tall, well-presented lady, with the bearing of someone who had enjoyed a professional life. She introduced herself, and quite early on in our conversation she told me that she was my designated pastoral carer.
I didn’t really know what to make of that. I’d not had a pastoral carer as such in my previous Church, and although I know I did have one while I was training at college I don’t think I ever met them, I’m not sure I even knew who they were.
My main memory of ‘Church pastoral carers’ was of an awkward conversation, long before I started to train for the ministry, one of those conversations when you really aren’t sure what’s going on; only sometime later did I figure out that I had just been pastorally visited.
Perhaps in my personal and professional arrogance I didn’t think that pastoral care was something that applied to me, at least not being on the receiving end of it.
That well-presented lady, of course, was Jan, and she completely changed that attitude in me.
Our theme this week, in the series “We have seen the Lord” is “We seen the Lord… in the community of God’s people.”
In some ways this is the easiest, the most obvious, of the ways in which we, living two thousand years after the events recorded in the gospels, can say that we still, “see the Lord”. We often quote Matthew 18:20, in which Jesus makes the promise that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” as a way of expressing this truth; that there is something about the gathered community of the people of Jesus Christ that makes him more real to each of us.
For some, this is especially true when we gather around the table for communion; the act of remembering, as he himself described our sharing of the elements together, is an act of bringing back to mind, making real once again, all that we know of the risen Christ.
The experience of the early Church, as described in our reading from Acts chapter two, is one of a very radical “making known” of the risen Jesus. Here were people who had, in some cases, actually seen Jesus after the resurrection for themselves, and many who had heard it directly from those first witnesses, sharing with the world that message with a powerful witness.
And they certainly shared that message directly, with words of proclamation, frequently in those early days – we hear many of those stories through the book of Acts. But here in this short reading we don’t hear the good news of Jesus’ resurrection being proclaimed, we see it being lived. And we read that every day their numbers grew, as the word “we have seen the Lord” spread.
That’s an idea that we in the Uniting Church are rather fond of; that we don’t tell people about our faith, instead we live lives that demonstrate it. I honestly couldn’t tell you how often I’ve heard words to that effect – I probably couldn’t even tell you how many times I have spoken them.
And our reading from Acts gives us some reason to think along those lines, describing the way the early Church was growing in terms of the way that the believers lived, rather than the words they said. The risen Jesus could be seen in their lives together.
But I wonder how comfortable we would be, really, with taking this description as a model for wordlessly making the good news of the resurrection known?
Because what is described here is far beyond the experience that I, and I suspect most of us, have had of Christian community.
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
If we lived like that, I promise you, we would be noticed without need for words. We might find ourselves the subject of some TV documentary, or making a splash on social media. We’d probably be seen as a dangerous cult, or at least a bunch of hippies, but we’d be noticed.
Because what we read in Acts 2 is of people who, going back to our reflections on Jesus’ teaching in the sermon on the mount, lived lives that were much more than just the lives of good people. More than exemplary members of society (indeed, in many ways not that), they lived in a way that made the character of God known. The generosity of God that cares for the least, for those in need, the giving nature of our God who shares everything, even sharing Godself with us in the person of Jesus, and who does so despite the cost.
That’s a way of life that made Jesus visible; that people could look at and say, “in these people, in this community, I have seen the risen Jesus.”
Community doesn’t automatically make the risen Jesus visible. Radical community lived above and beyond what might ever be expected, for the benefit of those most in need, displaying the character of God known, does.
And again, it’s as Jesus said. In the parable of the sheep and the goats he declared that when we do what is needed for the least, we do it for him. When, in our life together, we go above and beyond for the sake of those who are least, we find Jesus in them. We see the Lord in those who need us, those who we serve with God’s self-giving generosity.
And thinking of service offered to the least draws me back to Jan, and the way that she poured herself into Kids Playtime right until the end, making Tuesday morning the one non-negotiable part of her week, sometime, I think, driving her doctors close to despair. She gave her limited and failing energy in service of the very young; and of parents, many recently arrived in Australia, who often find themselves isolated and in need.
But there is another way, to my eyes an even more powerful way in which Jan taught me that in the community of God’s people I can say “we have seen the Lord”. And that was in the remarkable way in which she faced the reality of her own finitude and mortality.
What struck me most powerfully was not her courage. Nor was it the way that, pastoral carer to the end, she always seemed more interested in how I was than in bemoaning her own condition. Those were both remarkable, but even more remarkable was the openness with which she was able to speak of the nearness of her death.
An openness, that, as she explained it to me, and happily spoke of to others, came from the fact that she had no fear of what was to come; that her faith in the risen Jesus was so clear it overwhelmed all else.
And I find myself able to say: in that, I have seen the risen Lord. Not in Jan, but, as it were, through her. Through her eyes, through the clarity of her vision. I guess I feel a bit like those amongst the first believers whose witness was second hand; they heard from those who had seen for themselves. I am blessed that in this community of faith I have received such a gift of sight.