The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.

 

The Utopian Church

What does Acts tell us about what the church should look like today? Anything?

by Russell Rathbun

First Reading: Acts 2:42-47

For Sunday, May 15 , 2011: Year A – Easter 4

Sometimes the Hardest Question is the obvious question.

Acts 2 is infamous in its impotence. It is full of miraculous promise, with power of the Holy Spirit birthing the church; a radical community that upends the social structure in favor of one built on study, fellowship, worship and an equality flowing from love. And it lasts for exactly 5 verses.

Then It Gets Ugly

From the first description of this Spirit-led Utopia in 2:43-47, to the expanded picture of the renunciation of private ownership, unity of heart and soul, and the great grace as its markers in 4:32-37. Then it gets ugly. God kills the first dissenter.

What are we supposed to do with this? Is this brief glimpse at the Utopian church really the way it is supposed to be?

Googling It

Sixty seven million hits on a Google search for “Acts 2 Church” can’t be wrong—that’s over a million entries for every verse. There are Baptist, United Methodist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Pietiest, Mennonite and no end of independent and evangelical congregations that go by the name Acts 2 Church. There are the “Acts 2 Network,” “How to Be an Acts 2 Church,” “Building an Acts 2 Church,” the “Acts 2 Process”—plus, like a million other attempts at incarnating, reviving or re-establishing the original.

The Utopian Church?

The curious thing is, the author of the Acts of the Apostles never mentions it again. The Utopian Church does not seem to serve as a model as the faith is expanded. Acts famously begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome, where according to Eusebius it builds structures and hierarchies until it becomes something that fits in nicely with the Roman Empire.

Is this a failure, or is there something about the way the Christian church accommodates a societal structure that is desirable? Whatever the answer, it is amazing how our Holy Book tells the story and gives us the questions.

The Hardest Question

What does Acts tell us about what the church should look like today? Anything?


Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.

Comments

  1. Rachel Morey says:

    Russell, thanks. I appreciate your insight that, strangely, if this is the church idealized and as it’s intended to be, the rest of the book of Acts is strangely silent about it.

    A thought. . .for established congregations, this seems to be “law” – if this is treated as church its best, then no congregation I have served or ever will serve can “live up to it”. The irony is that this description (as opposed to prescription) is dripping with joy, exuberance, hope – it has the feel of a party right before the cops get called. It’s this close to spinning out of control.

    I read it less as an ideal and more of a comic book origin story: Spiderman is bitten by a radioactive spider and spends the rest of his young adulthood trying to figure out how to live with that new reality. With great power comes great responsibility. . .and the giddiness of being able to climb tall buildings and swing on a spiderweb through New York wears off, and he settles down to crime-fighting and renegotiating old relationships in light of his transformation. His origin story is just that: the beginning, never the end (either as purpose or terminus).

    I wonder if the call here is less to emulate the behaviors for the sake of emulation than to ask, what would it take for a church – ANY church – to live with this much joy? If we lived with this sort of giddy euphoria that we have SEEN life as God intends it, and now that we’ve seen it, we can’t un-see it?

  2. Christian says:

    Wow, Rachel – heartfelt, significant stuff here. Thank you! I love the Spiderman “new reality” take. The giddy euphoria is so fleeting, but once you’ve been bit, the possibility for that keeps you going. Not just with mythic hope, but with those amazing outbreaks of the Spirit which confirm that even though the reality doesn’t always show forth utopia – and I bear my (large) share of that burden – grace still happens. It vivifies this “law” with moments of power that have left me breathlessly saying” “Now this…this..is what the church should always be.” When the organs of organized religion each play their part the church becomes super/heroic.

  3. Jeff says:

    I have the image of the childrens song (with hand motions), “here’s the church here’s the steeple, open the doors….”) my image of the church, as a child, was MUCH different than my experiance is today. Is Luke giving us a “looking back, when things were good” image here? Utopia is a relative term, I think. Maybe its time to open the doors again and see the people…how they have changed over 200O+ yrs, but also what remains the same about us. We long to be loved and to love. We may not be Luke’s image anymore, but ask my drug addicted member, who recieves grace every week, what he thinks…..he sounds alot like Luke.

  4. Rev. Russell says:

    These are some nice images. Imperfection in individuals, institutions (the temple, Kingdoms and tribes, the church) seem to be God’s preference when it comes to working in this world. Maybe it is because there are not any other options. Maybe the killing of Ananias (I don’t really think God killed him) was some sort of acknowlegement of where attempts at perfection end up–strict law and punishment for deviation.

    I don’t me to short change the Joy that is being brought out of the text. That is a real hopeful and beautiful reading. Thanks

  5. Carl Gregg says:

    I appreciate the challenging angle of your post, but I don’t look to just the five verses in Acts 2 for the hope of a Holy Spirit-infused “Utopianian Church.” As I survey church history, I see “Acts 2″ churches emerging again and again — although I would certainly grant that the institutional issues/accommodations/compromises seen in Acts 5, etc. also seem to come again and again. To name a few example, there is a sense of Spirit-infused utopianism in the fourth century with the desert Mothers and Fathers and the early monastic communities; in the Middle Ages with Waldensians, the Beguines, and the Franciscans; and today with the New Monastic Communities such as the Simple Way in Philadelphia, Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco, Rutba House in Durham, North Carolina, and The Open Door in Atlanta – as well as the L’Arche Communities founded by Jean Vanier, the Catholic Worker Houses founded by Dorothy Day, and the Christian Peacemaker Teams from the Mennonite Tradition. Each of these communities, both historical and contemporary, demonstrate that the Beloved Community is not just a prophetic dream; it is a practical, pragmatic way of transforming one’s life in this world through relationship with God and neighbor. Diana Butler Bass does a fairly good job of tracing a similar pattern of what she called “Great Commandment Christianity” in her book “A People’s History of Christianity.”

  6. Christian says:

    I really appreciate Carl’s urging that we see “Beloved Community” as more than a mere pipe dream – that the Body of Christ has legs to stand, hands to hold, hearts to love in such communities the here and now. But the reality for most North American churches is that the Body is more like 1 Corinthians 3ff than Acts 2. Paul, nevertheless, affirms their identity as “saints” in 1 Cor. 1-9 before railing against their Corinthian shortcomings. It seems to me that grasping this identity, however feebly, is the first step in turning the Apostle’s Creed article of faith – I believe…in the communion of saints – into some semblance of reality.

  7. Paul T says:

    I was raised in the Anabaptist Tradition, which arose specifically as a reaction against an overly theoretical and spiritual reading of the New Testament, in particular in regards to the challenge Jesus laid out in the Sermon on the Mount. These radical reformers believed that these commands of Jesus were not utopian, or symbolic, but were a call to discipleship that was meant to shape how we live in the here and now. However, precisely because they believed that the call of the gospel was very much grounded in a “this world” way of living, their way of dealing with deviation from these standards was shunning – public expulsion from the community.

    ISTM that the paradox is that more we believe, and act on the belief, that the Bible really does call us to change the way we live in the world, the more we will fail to live up to these standards. And Acts 2 is merely a very honest admission of this reality of human existence. It does not mean that we ignore the radical call to discipleship we find in the text, but rather we must struggle with the tension between grace and law; between affirming the vision of hope contained in these texts while recognizing that we, and perhaps more importantly those we are in relationship with, will never fully live up to these commands.

  8. Sarah says:

    I often hear this scripture proclaimed as a call to stewardship, and for a long time I thought of this as the passage that described, more or less, “this is what you should be doing, if you are a good Christian. You should look like this.” The problem is in the should. When we start looking at this as a duty, as something we are supposed to be imitating, we risk losing the sense of wonder and awe that inspired this kind of community in the first place. Perhaps this is less a blueprint for what the church ought to be doing, and more a vision of what the church could find itself doing when it is filled with God’s Word and inspired by the Holy Spirit. Not all churches will look just like this, but my guess is that they will find ways to practice hospitality, dwell in God’s Word, and fellowship with one another in their own key.

  9. I think that this passage is a response to the Shepherd’s voice. You know…church is a response to God and not the other way around. They were, as Rachel suggests, responding in joy and this is the shape it took. He’re something else that is making the rounds as well. Likely it’ll show up in my sermon tomorrow.

    “God in the beginning did not make one person rich and another poor. He left the earth free to all alike. Why then if is it common have you so many acres of land while your neighbor has not a portion of it.”

    John Chrysostum, 4th century bishop of Constantinople

    If the ministry of Christ was, in part, to show us the jubilee, the return to zero in the best sense, then how might our present day churches do that? What would it look like? How would it be to serve with Chrysostom’s challenging understanding of the Word who was at the beginning and who shows up again and again and again…?

  10. susie says:

    Well, I think my focus for tommorow evening’s sermon will be less on this elusive utopian church (remember that “utopia” is Greek for “nowhere”)than on the first verse of the reading, v. 42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” One could see those within the framework of Wesley’s “means of grace”: channels through which God’s grace flows, if we will only open the floodgates (that may be a poor choice of metaphor for those of us along the lower Mississippi, right now!)

    By way of what we’d call “Bible study,” along with the ministry of preaching, combined with “holy conversation,” the Eucharist and table fellowship generally, and through and in the power of prayer, this Acts 2 church opened itself to grace and growth, and both were poured out upon it.

    I wouldn’t sweat the manifest fact that this church may not have lasted very long in its pure estate (Ananias!!) nor that any other church since the first century has either. We have enough trouble just keeping the doors open and the lights on without worrying about an Acts 2-level purity (Although i do love Koinonia and Sojourners and the Taize community). Perhaps a focus on what has always blessed us – v. 42 – would help our people to recognize what church is all about.

  11. charl says:

    Peruse the website of Joshgen.co.za. This church started 11 years ago and has as its DNA the Act 2:42 prinsciple. God has blessed this church to become a phenomana in its own right as it submits to this call. There is definitely life on this Scripture for today

  12. Eagle Spits says:

    “Christianity has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not one single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.” Roman Emperor Julian (4th Century) Just a thought

Trackbacks

  1. [...] this week.  Russell Rathbun, curator of The Hardest Question, a lectionary blog, has a great post on this passage, in which he questions our assumptions about the Utopian [...]

  2. True faith comes from knowledge. Find everything you need to know about bible verse of the day…

    [...]thehardestquestion.com » The Utopian Church[...]…

  3. [...] 6  Rachel Morey, responding to Russell Rathbun’s lectionary blog, “The Hardest Question,” http://thehardestquestion.org/yeara/easter4act/. 7 Morey, ibid. 8  Acts 2:42-47. 9  Scott Clark, May 10, 2011. 10 [...]

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