Acts 2:42-47; John 10:1-10

Jesus says that he comes to give us life in all its fullness, and Acts paints an image of what that life looks like: a community of people learning, sharing, praying, and eating together. That sounds great, but something about it can make us uneasy. For a modern pastor, it feels unapproachable, like an impossible standard (as if we even want the church to be like this). For many of us, it feels dangerous. There’s a fine line between this and a cult, and I’d suggest that it’s that line that makes all the difference.

The danger of this ideal is that it demands great self-sacrifice, conformity, and unity – and history tells us that this is often the most painful for the lowest-status people in a group. Look at the dynamic of power and money in the USSR, Cuba, or North Korea (or in the Fortune 500, for that matter). Look at family dynamics: when the chips down, there is often pressure for someone to take the fall for the whole family. The religious weight of these stories often makes it harder. It’s like one of the jokes we didn’t tell two weeks ago: Two boys were having pancakes for breakfast, and they were arguing over who should get the first one. Their mom said, “If Jesus were here, he would say, ‘Let my brother have the first pancake.’” And one boy said quickly, “Okay, Ryan, you be Jesus!” We know all too well that this ideal can be abused.

Jesus knew that too, which is why he started this conversation with a discourse on thieves and robbers. We know who the thieves and robbers are. What’s more, we’ve followed them. We know preachers who suggest that your good standing before God depends on your effort – whether it’s giving, support of church activities, or mental ideas. We may have known spouses, friends, or parents who try to convince you that your life depends on them (or theirs on you). We feel the forces of success and career advancement that would turn our worth as a person into a paycheck, or we may feel shackled by debt that does the same thing. We certainly can’t get through the day without hearing voices that would sell us success and self-worth in plastic packaging or an eco-friendly totebag. And we don’t just follow voices from the outside; many of these voices come from within us. We hear Acts and know that it’s unrealistic, because if the thieves and robbers don’t find us, we’ll find them – or we’ll become them ourselves.

But Jesus names something else. We’re also capable of knowing his clear, gentle voice. An ear for the Good news is built into us: in our awe at natural beauty, our thanksgiving for simple human kindness, our compassion for others in need. Even our doubt is part of an ear for the Good Shepherd’s voice. We know not to trust people blindly, because we know what love is (or should be). We know Jesus even when we can’t imagine that his good news is real.

So we love Acts 2, that ideal of the church giving itself in devotion to each other. We know that’s what Jesus was getting at when he talked about abundant life. We value that ideal even when it seems impossible or unrealistic. There’s truth to it, even when the ideal is out of our reach.

It’s like looking at pictures of a honeymoon. There’s a particular kind of truth to them, even when the honeymoon is over. This story is from the church’s honeymoon period, when the risen Christ was so really, vitally present, and everything was new and transformed. It was bliss. Of course, honeymoons don’t last – whether for couples, for Christians discovering the faith, or for the church in living it out. Dirty socks start appearing on the living room floor, the troubles of this present life overwhelm the hope of a future life, and the same old sermon illustrations start to crop up.

But I don’t know that honeymoons should last. You learn things from daily life that you can’t learn from vacation. There is as much truth (even as much idealism) in the long, slow love of daily life. It’s like the scene from Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye asks his wife Golde, after 25 years “Do you love me?” They have watched their daughter fall in love, complete with roses and fireworks, and they know their relationship had none of that. Tevye asks, do they have the same kind of love? Golde ponders:

“Do I love him? / For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him / Fought him, starved with him / Twenty-five years my bed is his / If that’s not love, what is?”

The musical contrasts “young love” with the love that develops through years together, and we know that the latter is deeper and richer, even if it’s less “exciting.”

All the same, going back to the beginning is valuable. We can see and remember what was special and new, and we let that joy fill the parts of ourselves that are now far deeper than before. They’re deeper because we’ve learned what it takes to sustain and grow this relationship. Acts 2 is beautiful because we know how much work it would take to live it out. It takes a special kind of work, that of self-giving love. It’s not compulsory, as if utopia can be forced. Love can’t be forced. But it can grow in the freedom of service, as Golde found herself giving to Tevye for many years. It wasn’t ideal, but it was transformative nonetheless.

The work of love is built on the life and the self-gift of the One who came with nothing in mind but abundant, fulfilled life for all creation. So we’re invited, freely, to share our own life, to lay it down for others. But first, we are freely offered that life. Jesus’ life, given in service and love so that we might be eternally, abundantly alive.

Amen.

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