As we learn to be community in new ways during physical distancing, we can look to the example of the early church who cultivated community amidst the uncertainty following Jesus’ death by trusting God’s guidance through the Holy Spirit.
Vicar Bristol Reading
The Fourth Sunday of Easter, year A
Texts: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; John 10:1-10
Beloved in Christ, may the love of God be with you this day and all days. Amen.
Have you seen any chalk messages around your neighborhood?
You might have spotted some out your window or on an evening walk on your block. It’s become a trend during the pandemic. Sidewalks are covered in rainbow-colored chalk messages that say things like: “We’re all in this together” or “Don’t be afraid” or “This too shall pass.” My favorite one I saw recently said, “I can’t wait to hug you.”
The chalk trend is a sweet way to cheer one another up in difficult times, but it’s also deeper than that. It’s a philosophy of community. The messages remind us that although we are physically distancing, we are not socially distancing. We are coming together by staying apart. We are taking care of, and being cared for, by strangers we’ll never even meet.
Even once the stay-at-home orders are lifted, this practice of physical distance is going to be with us for a long time, as we continue to cope with the coronavirus. We will need these reminders that the distance is actually a form of community. We’ll need these reminders on our sidewalks, in our conversations, in our prayers. This is what love of neighbor looks like right now. This is a new way to be community together.
This Easter season we’ve been reading in the book of Acts how the early church discerned what it meant to be community together in a new way.
Things were changing for them, and they were facing a lot of uncertainty as they struggled to understand Jesus’ death and resurrection. How would they know how to move forward in the absence of their teacher and leader?
What we read in Acts is that they learned to listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Even though Jesus was not physically with them any longer, the Holy Spirit moved among them and within them. That Spirit was a gift of Christ’s ongoing presence, poured out on the disciples.
But the apostle Peter says it goes further than that. Peter told the crowds that came to hear him: the promise of the Holy Spirit is for you, and for your children, and for those who are far away. The Holy Spirit is a gift for everyone to whom God calls! (Acts 2:39) The Spirit is not constrained by time or place. It’s not exclusive or limited; it’s abundant and generous. The disciples navigated the uncertainty after Jesus’ death because they trusted that abundant Spirit, which Jesus had promised would continue to guide them.
Through this faithful group of Christ-followers, God drew more and more people in, and they cultivated community together.
In Acts, we hear how radical the vision of togetherness was for these believers. They worshipped together daily and shared meals. They supported one another socially, spiritually, and economically. They accounted for every person’s needs. They shared everything.
Loving one another in this way sounds unrealistic in the midst of a pandemic, when you can’t be together and have all things in common. You can’t share meals and worship. You can’t even share handshakes and hugs. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be Christ-centered community.
You can care for the needs of others. You can support one another socially, spiritually, and economically. You can praise God with glad and generous hearts, study God’s word, and pray in your home, as Acts tells us the early church did. You are doing all of those things, and God is still working through you every single day. The Spirit is still speaking to you as you navigate how to be community in the midst of these circumstances.
When Jesus talked about how the community of believers should depend on God for guidance, he often used the image of a flock of sheep being led by a shepherd.
We heard this in our Gospel reading from John today. The shepherd leads the sheep by voice, calling to them and guiding them. The sheep can’t see all that well, but they can listen. They recognize and follow the voice of their shepherd. And they know to run away from other voices that might try to persuade them down a different path.
Following the voice of the shepherd can’t keep the sheep from all harm. They can’t huddle in the safety of the sheepfold forever. At some point, they need to go out and find pasture where they can eat, and they trust the shepherd to lead them there, to the green pastures and the still waters. (Psalm 23:2)
When you imagine yourself as one of God’s flock, navigating the dangers of the world, you might experience God as the shepherd who calls to you and leads you to the good fields. You might experience God as the gate that welcomes you back in to a place of safety. You might experience God as the gatekeeper who protects you while you rest, keeping out anything that would harm you. Jesus uses all of these different images to help people understand the ways that God cares for them.
And if all those metaphors confuse you, and you’re asking how God can be a shepherd, a gate, and a gatekeeper, know that you’re not alone. After all, the disciples themselves admitted that they weren’t sure what Jesus was talking about. So he gave them the bottom line.
Jesus says what matters is this: God wants life for you.
And not just the kind of life that’s sufficient or good enough. God wants the kind of life for you that’s abundant, like a cup running over, flooded with blessing. (Psalm 23:5) God wants this for you, and for the people you’re isolated with, and for the people you miss and want to hug, and for the people you’ve never even met. Even when it feels like you are walking through the valley of the shadow of death, you are not alone in this. The whole flock surrounds you and the good shepherd leads you.
Keep listening for the voice that speaks abundant life to you. Keep listening for the voice that calls you into courageous love for the world. Keep listening.