Reflection by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 3 May 2020.
• First Reading: Acts 2: 42-47 (Life of the very early church)
• Epistle: 1 Peter 2: 19-25 (Endurance of suffering while doing right – the example of Jesus)
• Gospel: John 10: 1-10 (I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly)
There have been many visions of the perfect community, some whimsical like those of Gulliver’s Travels, some coercive and some downright evil, such as the regime of the Nazis.
The church also has its history of Christian communities, ranging from the united and exuberant very early gatherings in Jerusalem after the day of Pentecost, to the desert fathers and the monastic communities that have been part of the life of the church ever since.
In the 20th century there came the communities of Taize, Corrymela, and those that grew from within the charismatic movement.
The most threatening form of community however has been that imposed by the state, demanding unquestioned compliance by all members in order to secure the ‘Greater Good.’ The threats of prison or worse await those who do not follow the approved narrative.
But the very early church in Jerusalem tells a story of unquenchable love for one another which is wholly founded on their love for and commitment to Jesus Christ. His resurrection had overthrown the assumptions of the coercive state and His message of forgiveness and reconciliation with God was now unanswerable except through the means of determined unbelief and rejection of all that His life and ministry had stood for.
Take Jesus away, and there was nothing left except the deepest despair and condemnation.
So to model a community on the early church while excluding the resurrection of Jesus was to erect a building with no foundation or to build a ship with a showy superstructure but no hull. And certainly no engine or rudder.
And this is where Jesus’ image of Himself as the gate for the sheep is so critical. Elsewhere He spoke of Himself as the Good Shepherd, but here the issue was different.
It was in Him and in Him alone that the sheep of His flock would find safety and in Him they would come and go and find their personal and emotional and spiritual security.
This sense of being His disciples would only come from that sense of being in and of Him. This kind of discipleship was one of total commitment and trust without fear or resentment.
The danger however was in those who wished to gain access to and control of the disciples of Jesus. Those who resented their freedom and exuberance, and who wanted to control it and draw from it the energy, time, money and loyalties that only belong to Jesus.
To expect to control and exploit the church without sharing its deepest faith in Jesus Christ and Him crucified, without being one with them in their faith and commitment, is not to enter the fold through the door. It is to climb in over the wall.
Jesus does not mince His words for this kind of ‘entryism.’ He calls such members ‘thieves and bandits’. They may indeed have a vision for a fairer society, where all may work without exploitation or abuse. They may have visions of peace lived in harmony with nature. They may have visions of progress in its many manifestations.
But unless this is clearly and firmly founded on personal faith in Jesus Christ, Him and none other, grounded on the scriptures and the sacraments, then it is a mirage.
Worse, it is a deception.
The Book of Acts says that the fellowship of believers’ devotion started with their commitment to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayers.
The sharing of possessions and the care of the needy within the fellowship were the outcome of their commitment of faith, and in the gospel Jesus says that the sheep hear and know the voice of the shepherd. They trust it and follow it – but will not heed that of a stranger.
There was never going to be that sense in which the Christian community could ever exist except within its faith in Jesus and Him alone.
It is this sense of intimacy with Jesus that leads us to care for one another and to grow in His final commandment to ‘love one another.’
This is the kind of love that may indeed reach out into the community, but it is always going to be founded on that which Jesus has for us and never apart from it.
For He came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly.