Reverend Martin Johnson
Acts 2.42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2.1-10; John 10.1-10
During the week I read this:
During this period there was massive economic growth, while at the same time a lot of discontent among many sectors about the growth of debt. The reason for this was taxation, more people having to rent land, larger sectors of the economy being commercialized; and as the cost of living increased, so did the demand for credit. The debt often got to a point where one mishap, or bad harvest, could lead to a default on a loan.
This is a description of the economic situation in Judea in the first century. Doesn’t it sound familiar?!
We, too, are living through yet another economic crisis. Inflation is high, the cost of housing, either to own or rent, is above what most working folk can afford; the cost of living has risen rapidly. During the week Adam Bandt, the leader of the Greens, spoke here in Canberra at the Press Club. He made an interesting point: the government receives more from students trying to pay down their loans than it does from the resource sector in taxes and royalties. I am not an economist and no doubt someone with far more knowledge than I can explain this, but I’m sure you would agree it sounds pretty dreadful. It was reported during the week that the Reserve Bank and its board have undergone a review. Not only am I not an economist, I am also not a politician, yet perhaps the Reserve Bank needs a theologian? I wonder what would happen?!
Perhaps the first text that our Reserve Bank theologian might turn to is from Acts chapter 2; we heard it this morning. It describes four aspects of the early Church’s daily life: teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers. It doesn’t sound much, but from those small, seemingly insignificant, beginnings a movement was established that stood against the systemic injustices of that time: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
Yes, but I can hear you say that we have been there . . . the Communist experiment has been a failure? I would have to agree with you; but it seems that the capitalist experiment has been showing signs of wear and tear for a while too. The early church of course knew nothing of what today we called Communism (or capitalism for that matter), but they did have a word in the New Testament, it was koinonia and we can see in these texts from the early church how this worked.
This way of life, this koinonia, is not born out of a political manifesto but out of a profound, radical, sense of the inherent dignity of every person. These early communities demonstrated this dignity. Of course, the ruling class didn’t like it very much, the last pagan emperor wrote in one letter:
For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and when the impious Galileans (what Julian called the Christians) support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.
Spoken like a true politician!
This way of life was not born out of economics either. This is where our Reserve Bank theologian would bring something quite different to the board, that of agape, the love of God. Agape is one of those Christian ideas that is often discussed. What I’d like us to consider this morning is the idea of agape as justice, God’s justice. This is revealed to us by Jesus the Good Shepherd; in him we find no political or economic manifesto, but simply the God who is love, whose love transcends economics and politics. Whilst we can find both in Jesus’ teaching—and we shouldn’t ignore it or relativise it (‘that’s just what they did back then!’)—we need to see this way, the way of the Good Shepherd, through the lens of this love; there is compulsion, no manifesto. We don’t find a shepherd driving his flock with a quad bike, but a pastor leading his flock who are following trustingly.
Importantly, Jesus is not just a shepherd but the gate by which the flock will pass from the ravages of injustice to the fullness of life: koinonia. agape is far more than simply economics; it is abundant life. Is this what our theologian would bring to the Reserve Bank Board? An appreciation that life is far more than economics? It is all about ensuring that each of us has the chance for abundance—and that is more assets or cash flow. The trouble is that I’m not sure we really know what this means, and many cannot conceive of what this might look like. Because it can’t be calculated, regulated, or measured.
When we return to the fundamentals of the early Christian community, we discover that teaching and fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers, are communal. They are what we practise liturgically and what we strive to practise in our weekdays. Our Reserve Bank theologian, rather than engaging in discussion about whether Jesus was a communist, would be better served by engaging in what theological ‘housing’ looks like.
The best text for that would be that which we heard today from Peter’s first letter. In this compelling and beautiful passage, we can see metaphorically what this koinonia looks like. First, it is radically communal: ‘once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.’ There is no sense in which we are alone, we are part of a flock, the stones of a building—whatever metaphor you prefer. We are living stones, we share the status, the dignity, of the Living Stone. We share his royalty, his priesthood, his holiness, and his living relation with God. Appreciating how radical this sounds to Peter’s correspondents, should help appreciate how radical the call is to us today.
Christianity is not a form of Communism, because Christianity sits lightly with any kind of ideology. It is not primarily a political or an economic movement; it is about building a community in which there is abundant life, in all its myriad of forms. That abundant life comes to birth in a community built on agape, God’s profound justice which is itself born out of mutuality and trust. Bring on the revolution! Amen.