Texts: Acts 2:42-47 and Anne Lamott, this passage from “Traveling Mercies”:
“Broken things have been on my mind as the year lurches to an end, because so much broke and broke down this year in my life, and in the lives of the people I love. Lives broke, hearts broke, health broke, minds broke. On the first Sunday of Advent our preacher, Veronica, said that this is life’s nature, that lives and hearts get broken, those of people we love, those of people we’ll never meet. She said the world sometimes feels like the waiting room of the emergency ward, and that we, who are more or less OK for now, need to take the tenderest possible care of the more wounded people in the waiting room, until the healer comes. You sit with people, she said, you bring them juice and graham crackers.”
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When we think of the early church, it might be easy to think of it as a collection of little groups that look a lot like American, mainline Protestant churches today, but of course it was completely different. Gatherings took place in Romanesque villas, large, multi-generational family homes. There was little to no agreement regarding doctrinal matters; it would be centuries before the Council of Nicea put forward a creed that church leaders expected priests to teach their congregations, and even after the Nicene Creed, there were often vicious arguments over the exact nature of Christ and the role of the Holy Spirit. When the book of Acts states that the early church “believed,” it’s uncertain what, if anything, they believed beyond that Jesus was exemplary of God’s plan for how human beings are to be and act. But most importantly, the church talked about in the book of Acts wasn’t Christian—that word did not exist yet. The very earliest church members called themselves followers of Jesus, or the followers of the way of Jesus. They almost certainly had no understanding of the Trinity as most credal Christians today understand it—or try to understand it.
What they had was love. They had heard of Jesus’ teachings and wonders and they loved him for them. They loved the vision of the kingdom of God Jesus showed them. They loved each other, and wanted to care for each other as Jesus taught they should. Some of them may have believed he was God, some may have believed he was simply a very holy man—as if there is anything simple about that—and some of them probably believed a mixture of both: that Jesus was a human being who reveals to us how humans may take part in the divine. The word Logos, which John’s Gospel uses in its prologue to refer to Jesus, may be translated as many things: word, reason, order. It may even be translated “pattern,” as in blueprint or organizing principle. So the early church may have seen Jesus as the pattern we follow to become our best selves, the human beings and divine beings God created us to be.
Following this pattern, these early followers of the Way started a revolution. They shared their possessions, ate together, treated all as equals—even poor people, even women and children; in some cases, even slaves. Their law was love. The work God was doing in and through them was not making them catechists; it was not to make them perfect in the dogmatic understanding of their faith. God was helping to transform this collection of people—men and women, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, adults and children—into community. Not a community in the sense of their Roman overlords, with Roman distinctions of race and class and gender, but a new kind of community, one of mutual care and support, without the boundaries that separate. The boundary for this new community was not what people believed, but rather how they behaved. Whatever the early followers of the Way understood about Jesus—whether they were Unitarian or Trinitarian, understood Jesus as human or God or both—they understood Jesus as a Christ, an anointed one.
Now I want to unpack the word Christ a bit, because it’s misleading, and people often talk about Jesus as the only Christ, and even talk as if Christ equals divine. But in fact the word is just a Greek translation of the Hebrew mashiach, or messiah, a word simply meaning anointed. In the biblical world, many people were anointed: priests and kings, even laypeople on important occasions could be anointed by members of their family as a way of honoring them. The New Testament generally speaks of anointing as a healing act—ill people would be brought to a holy person, who would anoint the patient and pray over them for their healing. And one of the authors of the prophetic book of Isaiah writes, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” In this case, the speaker is anointed by being full of God’s spirit, a spirit of truth and liberation, and is impelled by that spirit to announce God’s liberation of the oppressed. Similarly, the first letter of John speaks of God’s anointing as giving knowledge.
As for the title Messiah, or Christ, Jesus is not the first person in the Bible to be spoken of as such. The pagan king Cyrus of Persia is. In this understanding of Messiah, the capital-A Anointed One is a person ordained by God to carry out God’s plans. King Cyrus did that, according to the Bible, by conquering Babylon and sending the Israelite captives back to their native land, giving them gold and other resources to rebuild the temple that the Babylonians had destroyed. Since Cyrus remained a faithful worshiper of Marduk, and not Yahweh, it’s crystal clear that anointing is much more about what you do and how you act than about what you believe.
So it is my hope that everyone here, whatever you believe about the Trinity or the nature of Jesus Christ, can embrace the understanding of the word Christ as one anointed to fulfill God’s call to transform our world. I hope you can because you are each christs. You are each called and anointed to share with each other, to model justice and mercy, to bring love into the world. With everything you do to make this place a peaceable kingdom, you are part of the community of faith, with diverse beliefs and practices, that has spanned 2000 years and the whole globe. You are bound together, not by creeds or catechisms or doctrine, but by the spirit of God in you that impels you to act.
As we come to this table, we are coming to be fed, not by ourselves, but by God. We are signaling the fact that we cannot feed ourselves. We are remembering the example of one who gave himself completely to the way of God, the way of love, even giving up his life for it. We are signaling our trust that God is a God of life, not death, and that we will be sustained by God forever in some mysterious way. We are putting our trust in the divine spirit who tells us that love will never die, never be killed, but will live forever.
And as we go from this place today, as we close the church doors behind us, we are not ceasing to be church: we are actually bringing the church into the world. We did this every week during the summer, and now we do it for a longer spell, but whenever we enter this building, we do so for strength and inspiration, to be reminded of the best that we are created to be, through music, word, and sacrament. And whenever we leave this building, we do so because we are all ministers charged with bringing to our families and communities the mysteries of faith and the message of love. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas; but what happens in the church is for the whole world. If we keep it in this building we have failed.
So let us go forth and make the whole world a church! If you need to recharge, come to Home Church this fall and winter. If you need to learn, come to our showings of Joseph Campbell’s “The Power of Myth.” If you need to pray, you can do that anywhere. If you need others to pray for you, ask a friend. But if you need authority, remember this: the church is meant to be active. Every member is a minister. Every member is a Christ, one of God’s anointed ones. Every moment may be sacramental, and every meal a festival communion. All that matters is the state of your heart, your intention. You have the power to change the world—to invest every moment of life with meaning. You are anointed with the power of love, with the spirit of life. This table is not mine, it is God’s and ours, and we are ministers together.