Deuteronomy 15:1-11; 1 Timothy 6:6-11, 17-19
Today is the last Sunday of the Season of Easter. We have been looking at the Jesus Movement with Brian McLaren as a guide. He has led us through different ways in which our lives as followers are acts of living the resurrection. Fellowship, worship, discipleship, suffering, and now, the more mundane of day to day life care. The Jesus way changes our relationship to our stuff, to the ordinary, often unconsidered decisions in the moments of our lives. This is the thread we are going to follow today.
Christianity was first called “The Way” because it was a way of life. It impacted everything one did and possessed. It was not a thing one just did in the Temple or synagogue. Jesus’ way gets into every corner of our lives!
Jesus, you will remember, was an itinerant rabbi, with no place to lay his head. So how did he manage day to day life? On the generosity of those who listened to him, good old middle eastern hospitality, and his benefactors. Luke 8:1-3 notes that there was a group of wealthy women who helped to provide for their needs during the preaching years.
Then the Spirit of Jesus went viral on Pentecost! In the world of internet, when an image, video, or link spreads rapidly through a population by being frequently shared with a number of individuals it has ‘gone viral’. Pentecost is one of the great pre-internet phenomena which could be described as “going viral.” The vast number of people who wanted instruction in following Jesus, needed support in order to receive the training they needed.
Most of the new followers of the Way of Jesus in Jerusalem were foreigners, visiting the city for the high holy days. When they were captured by the Spirit, they stayed much longer in the city than they had expected and their basic needs exceeded what they had prepared – remember this is before the days when one could go to an ATM machine and draw out a little extra cash from savings. They had only what they brought with them – and that would have been as little as possible, since highway robbery was a common problem for travelers. The Jerusalem disciples stepped up and shared what they had. People began bringing their belongings to the apostles to share with this new community. It was a basic principle of middle eastern hospitality and the Torah – that those who had more than enough were to make sure the least of these – whether fellow Jew or foreigner, slave or free – had their basic needs met.
In those early days, the community of disciples developed the practice of holding all things in common. That was not necessarily the ideal solution. It definitely created some problems! Old prejudices emerged, so that there were some who were not cared for as well as the others. Then, some began to pretend that they were more generous than they actually were. When it comes to the use of our money and possessions, we are easily corrupted.
Holding all things in common was a beautiful and challenging way to live. Some groups have continued the practice, on and off, through the whole history of Christianity. We have some remnants of the practice in the Presbyterian Board of Pensions. We insure and provide pensions to church workers through a system where everyone pays an equal amount which all goes into a big pool which pays the expenses. Large churches pay much more of the cost, to support the small, struggling parishes. But the majority of Jesus followers have discontinued this practice, especially on the local level. How has the loss of this practice changed the Jesus Way? I don’t have the answer to this question, but it is one of the questions I wonder about.
It doesn’t take long in this life to realize that money rules the world. People with money have power, and often what is valued is having more of both – money and power. Jesus’ Way changes our relationship with our stuff and our power. The marketplace of Philippi was in an uproar because Paul freed a slave girl from her fortune-telling and reduced the income of her owner. The Jesus way values people first.
The systems of this world run on one economy and we in the commonwealth of God run on another. In our alternate economy, those who have a lot of resources don’t hoard it; they share it. Those who have been given much in terms of money don’t feel a sense of power and privilege, or a desire to get their own way through the use of their money, but a sense of greater responsibility to the more vulnerable members of the community.
In the Jesus Way, the well-being of a community of Christ is measured by the condition of the weakest and neediest among them. This is what Paul meant when he talked about the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12. The least, or weakest member is the one we protect and honor (v.23). How many of us can understand this? Do you feel healthy when you have an inflamed little toe? Or, do you have energy when that little valve in your heart is not working right? Or, even, does our whole body feel good when we can’t sleep because we had too much rich food for dinner and our stomach is in turmoil? You get the idea. We are only as healthy as the least member of our body.
Paul was suspicious of money. He tells Timothy, his co-worker, that loving money is at the root of all kinds of evil. Jesus was suspicious of money: “You cannot serve God and wealth,” (Luke 16:14) or “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21). Jesus talked a lot about money. Sixteen of the thirty-eight parables (nearly half of them) were concerned with how to handle money and possessions. In the Gospels, an amazing one out of ten verses (288 verses in all) deal directly with the subject of money. The Bible offers 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 verses on faith, but more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions.  The Jesus Way challenged the culture’s relationship with money.
In our world, there are several relationships we may have with possessions. “What’s yours should be mine and I want it,” is one common attitude. This is the attitude the Torah calls coveting. This happens on a personal level – like when we drive through a neighborhood of beautiful homes and are possessed of a desire to own one. How else could we respond? Perhaps simply appreciating the beauty, the gift of the architect, or the glorious tree which God provided. There is a tree in a yard on Salmon Street, on the way up to Mt. Tabor Park, which just takes my breath away with its size and grandeur every time I go by. I could think or act in a way that says, “I want a tree like that,” or “I want that tree!” The other option is to pause in gratitude for its strength shared with everyone who sees it; to notice and honor God who created it. “Blessed art thou, O Lord God, Creator of the Universe, for you have nurtured life and strength in this tree!” We have options besides wanting to possess it.
Coveting also happens on the community and world stage. It is perhaps the number one cause of war and violence. The natural resources under the soil of one land is desired by another land for its own. Or there is a great holy site in the territory of one nation and another wants to possess it for its own. “What’s yours should be mine and I want it!” is common behavior among nations. But not in the commonwealth of God.
Another relationship with our stuff is reflected in the phrase, “What I have is mine and I want to keep it!” The Reformed theologians, our Presbyterian tradition, called this idolatry, a violation of the first and second commandments. Idolatry is when we prize anything in creation more than the one who created it.
This is the attitude which makes life a contest: whoever dies with the most toys wins! When I put it that way, it doesn’t seem very tempting. The ridiculousness of the idea is clear. But still we hear people comparing the size of their stock portfolios or 401k’s on the golf course or in the coffeeshop. Will it be enough to retire in the style in which I want to retire? I was surprised when one of our Board of Pensions advisers asked me that question a number of years ago, so it is probably why I think of it now. How might the Jesus perspective change this question? I am not sure I have the answer, but it is one we must ask, as followers of Jesus.
The Jesus Way offers us another relationship with our possessions: “What’s mine is God’s and I want to use it for the common good.” This means that we choose to live below our means in order to serve others. It means we understand that our footprint in this world impacts others – for good or ill – and we make choices for good.
One way to illustrate it is to say that we divide our resources into three parts. The first part is what we will use to provide for the basic needs of ourselves and our families. This is a core responsibility, of course! But do we tend to look at basic needs or desire extravagance? This is a question we must wrestle with in a culture which leans toward luxury. A second part we put aside for savings. It is wise to put away something for the season of scarcity. Most all the species of the animal kingdom do this. It is part of our created nature. Again, though, we must ask, how much is enough?
The third part is the unique thing in the Jesus way. We put aside another portion – and make it as big as we possibly can – for God’s work of compassion, justice, restoration and peace. To take care of “the least of these” with whom Jesus identifies himself in this world (Matthew 25). Some of this third portion goes to support the work of people who serve the way of Jesus, to free up as much of their time and gifts to teach and guide. Some of it goes to take care of the needy ones in the ecclesia – the sick, the elderly, the widows, the orphans, the unemployed. This kind of giving is CARE-giving. It is an expression of the love of God. This way of relating to our stuff, re-imagines our possessions as the way we love people and creation. We put our love to work through what we hold in our hands.
This is as revolutionary and threatening today as it was in the days of Jesus and Paul. We live in a country where how we are doing is based on the economic numbers. We don’t measure ourselves by questions like: “How are our forests? Is our land getting enough water to drink? Are the hearts of the parents turned to their children and the children to the parents? Do all people have access to resources to meet their basic life needs? Do people have the freedom to create beauty?” Yes, we measure those things, but it is not how we organize our life or the standard upon which we elect our leaders. Instead, our standard is the key economic indicators. These, we believe, will tell us whether or not life is good.
Nothing has any value without love. And love is nothing if it is invisible, to paraphrase James 2. Jesus taught, we cannot serve two masters. Brian McLaren puts it this way: “If we love God, we will hate money because it always gets in the way of loving God. If we love money, we will hate God, because God always gets in the way of loving money” (p. 194-5).
Today I leave you with more questions than answers. Honestly, I continuously wrestle with these questions. And I make many mistakes. What is right for retirement planning? How much do I need to provide for my children? Should I participate in the practice of holding all things in common, as I know some communities do? Are my possessions my tools for love? Maybe the questions are more important than the answers. What I want to walk away with is a new standard for evaluating my practice of the way of Jesus: “What’s mine is God’s and I want to use it for the common good.”
We Make the Road by Walking, by Brian McLaren, chapter 38