5th Sunday of Easter (A) – May 7, 2023
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Acts 6:1-7; Psalm 33:1-2, 4-5, 18-19; 1 Peter 2:4-9; John 14:1-12
Jerusalem in 33AD vs. Lyons in 2023AD
Quick thought experiment: I want you to imagine that you’re on a desert island, and that you’ve lived there your whole life. One day, a Bible washes up on the shore, so you start reading it. And you open to the Acts of the Apostles, this book that describes the beginnings of the life of the Church. So all you know about the Church, about being a Catholic—it’s that. Ok: What would your impression be? What would you assume that it would look like? You start reading about people being filled with the Holy Spirit, preaching where thousands are converted, people living life completely differently, giving away their money. You hear about people giving up their lives because of the message they have heard. You hear about murderers being welcomed into the community—and then becoming some of the most important members (St. Paul). People are miraculously healed. People are imprisoned. And in the midst of it all…these people are filled with joy. Ok, and let’s say you got rescued from this island, and taken to Lyons, Kansas. And you’re taken to a church—our church, any church. This is the question: would you recognize *this* as what you read about in the Acts of the Apostles?
We live in a time where so many of us think about being a Catholic, a Christian—it means, “I go to church on Sunday—sometimes. And I only eat fish on Friday—unless I forget. And I try to be a good person.” We live in a time and in a world where people who go to a building on Sunday mornings for about 57 minutes … they identify as the same people that we read about in the Bible on the desert island. We live in a day and in an age where people can say, “I never go to church, and I don’t do anything you read about in the Acts of the Apostles…but I’m one of those people, I’m a member of these Christians, these Catholics you read about in Acts.” Does that sound shocking to you?
Or imagine Peter and Paul—the great apostle, Peter, the great missionary, Paul—I want you to imagine them having a conversation that goes something like this. “Hey, did you go to church on Sunday?” “Yeah, I did. But, it was kind of boring. And that old lady gave me the stink eye again. And they didn’t sing any songs I like. Did you go?” “Nah, we had soccer with the kids. Maybe next week.” “Yeah, we have Chiefs tickets next week so we’re not going to make it to the church thing.” It’s comical to us to think of anyone in Scripture talking like that. And yet for us, it’s a very common experience.
In Scripture, people who called themselves followers of Christ—Catholics, Christians—they were giving up their lives for him. People were giving up their livelihoods. Their families! They were abandoning everything to follow him! But for us, well, I’m just trying to “go to church and be a good person.” Question: how many of you would have shown up today if there was a bomb threat? Or if you might be arrested for being here? In other parts of the world, that’s a thing. People show up on Sundays knowing that it’s not safe to be here. And the question is “why?”
Koinonia: An Essential Element of the DNA
We’ve been talking all throughout this Easter season about how Jesus rising from the dead has changed everything! And yet, the real issue is: Do I believe this? We say the words, but do we really believe it? Do we believe that this changes anything about my life, about your life? Do we believe that Jesus “rising from the dead” (whatever that means)—do we believe this really affects us? Do we believe that it really touches our life? Do I believe that is has any real effect on me? And if so, how? How do I let this change me, affect me?
There were people that believed this with everything they had. Everything. Again, literally ready to die for this—many did die for it! People allowing this to affect them and change them—that’s what we read about on the desert island. We would have read a passage like Acts chapter 2, verse 42 (Acts 2:42)—there we read about four essential parts of the “DNA,” so to speak: the people dedicated themselves, they persevered in: the breaking of the bread, listening to and following the teaching of the Apostles, the prayers, and the communal life (the “koinonia” in Greek). These four things are the way they allowed this to affect their life. And it doesn’t sound like much, but actually it’s all there.
For instance, the Breaking of the Bread. We talked a few weeks ago about how essential the Breaking of the Bread is, the Eucharist, the Sunday Mass—been there since the beginning! Been essential since the beginning! For some reason, this was the first thing Jesus did after he rose from the dead, on the road to Emmaus—the breaking of the bread. But not just that! Last week we saw how the teaching of the Apostles, following the lead of the shepherds who have been given—also essential! We are typically more dedicated to the teachings of influencers or talking heads on the news. But the earliest followers of Jesus? No. It was the Apostles.
But today we get to the third element: and that’s the communal life, the koinonia. This word in Greek doesn’t mean a club, a group of like-minded people with like-minded beliefs who enjoy hanging out with each other, no. It also does not mean “a building where you show up for 57 minutes if you have time,” no. The word originally meant a sort of business partnership. So for instance Peter and Andrew had a koinonia with James and John: their fishing koinonia. Great! Acts 2:42 isn’t trying to tell us that the earliest Christians were starting a new business. That word was chosen because it reflects how these people had a shared possession of something, and that generated solidarity, a tight bond between them. And that one shared possession? Christ, their faith in Christ. They had a new way of being, a new way of life, a new way of being in relationship with God and with each other—a communal life. A true community was formed, a close, tight-knit community, a shared life. And this was not optional! This was an essential part of what it meant to be part of the people that followed Jesus.
People were never called just to form a personal, isolated, one-on-one relationship with Jesus in their heart—never! Go read Acts! They were always called to join the koinonia, the partnership, the communal life. And through that koinonia—through that, everything else flowed. People were never invited to “the church”—there were no church buildings! Those didn’t come around until after 313AD. The “church” was this community, marked by: a communal life, the breaking of the bread, the teaching of the Apostles, and the prayers. You weren’t invited to a building to attend a service for 57 minutes. You were invited to be part of a people—who (yes!) had a ritual meal on Sunday lead by the leader of the community, and teachings, and prayers.
This is what I’m getting at. What if “just going to Mass on Sunday” with a bunch of people I have no connection to outside of this building—what if that’s not it? What if there is something much more radical to what the early Church was proposing—and that we’re missing? What if there is something so much more to be experienced—if we dedicated ourselves to what is truly being proposed?
Jesus gives us that very famous saying in our Gospel today: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Through “me.” What does that mean? What is he getting at?
If you read the Acts of the Apostles, you will read one story three times. Three times! It’s the story of Paul’s conversion. Paul (whose name was Saul)—Saul was originally a great persecutor of the Christians. But one day Saul is on the road to Damascus and gets knocked down by a vision of the risen Jesus Christ. And Jesus asks him: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). And notice what Jesus says: “me.” Not, “Why are you persecuting those people who follow my teachings and go to that building for 57 minutes on Sundays.” Nope. “Why are you persecuting me?” Jesus makes a radical connection between himself and this group of people who follow him, this koinonia.
What am I getting at? What is Jesus getting at? The Church, the communal life, the koinonia is the place where you find the way, the truth and the life. “No one comes to the Father except through me”—who is “me”? This people, this communal life, this koinonia. The church isn’t a building, it’s a people who have entered into a life together. It’s not just “you and God.” It doesn’t work that way. It’s you and me and Cheryl and Steve and Leslie—and God. Jesus didn’t teach us to pray, “My Father, who art in heaven,” but, “Our Father.”
This is the Way: a life where individual people have surrendered their lives to Jesus in faith, and now live this in communion with others. This is how Jesus chooses to reach us: through this people, this rag-tag group of people. And in this breaking of the bread, he is not only present in the bread, but builds us up into his body. If you want Christ, you don’t just want the Eucharist or the teaching of the Apostles—you also want the people he has given you, placed beside you, that will live life with you. I know in a parish this sort of communal life is hard to find and experience (and we’re working on some ways to help us live this communal life in a much more practical way, more to come soon). But we can’t keep saying that this communal life is less important than the Eucharist and the Bible and the Teaching of the Apostles. We can’t keep saying that “going to church” or “receiving communion” is enough. We definitely can’t say we can do this on our own! No, the communal life, this koinonia is essential. Christ chooses to reach us through the church, through the community, through this people. And we should be dedicated to that as well.