Our lesson tonight comes from the Book of Acts and describes what happened immediately after Jesus’ first followers were visited by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved. (Common English Bible)
They seem to come out in waves. Books about heaven, I mean. Stories of people who have had near death experiences, who have spent time on the other side of the veil, only to find themselves back in their bodies, surrounded by family and friends.
One summer four or five of these books came out all at once and I decided to read them all. The only scene I can recall is this one: as part of a comprehensive tour of heaven, Jesus takes the author into a room lined with books. They’re filled with all the knowledge and wisdom of the cosmos. With a great sweep of his arm, Jesus gestures toward this infinity of volumes and tells his guest that nothing is off limits. She is free to explore these volumes to her heart’s content.
If you know me, you know I have long loved books. And so the thought of an eternity of books to read and rifle through thrilled me then—and it still does.
But more than this, I swoon over Jesus’ generosity. I love thinking how in heaven, nothing is held back, nothing is reserved only for the angels or the holiest of souls. I love the broad sweep of Jesus’ arm and his wild invitation to take everything in.
What Jesus does in this little scene, Jesus did throughout his earthly life. He shared and shared and shared. His time, his energy, his wisdom, his vision. He held nothing back, something that the Apostle Paul writes about in his letter to the church in Philippi, saying simply “Jesus emptied himself.” Jesus poured it all out, in other words. For no reason other than love.
This impulse, this inclination was not confined to Jesus. After Jesus ascended and the Spirit descended upon believers in Jerusalem at Pentecost, they too were overcome with the desire and capacity to be as generous as Jesus had been.
Our lesson this evening describes this brand-new community. Awe fills them as together they experience the Jesus-life. A spirit of generosity washes over them so completely that gone is the “mine” and “yours” and “theirs” of yesterday. Gone are any distinctions or divisions.
Instead, as the Book of Acts tells us “They believed together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
Who needs a book about the afterlife when we have this vision of the heaven-life here and now? And who needs to wait to pass through the pearly gates to taste the reality that Jesus was so in touch with and shared so freely? Earth is a fine place to engage in eternity’s habits.
While he walked among us Jesus wasn’t kidding, he wasn’t speaking metaphorically when he said “The kingdom of heaven is near at hand.” It’s just that without the Spirit at work in us, without a spirit of willingness rising up in us, it’s hard to imagine how close heaven truly is and how desperately it wants to come into our lives and take hold.
One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that we’ve gotten glimpses of “on earth as it is in heaven.” We have become people swept up in a spirit of generosity and possibility.
In this together, some sit at sewing machines for hours on end to craft enough face masks to supply every resident and employee in a a nearby assisted living community. Others go online and raise money to pay the rent for many months out when they learn an acquaintance has lost his job.
Heaven and earth are doing a lot of kissing these days. Just about everywhere we look, really.
Christian writer Brian McLaren observed recently that this time of pandemic is revealing our inherent interconnectedness. “We have discovered a wisdom that was needed all along,” he said. “We are not separate.”
I know you’ve seen this. I have too. The pandemic has given us lots of glimpses of heaven’s presence here on earth. It has, of course, also laid bare those places where earth most needs heaven to come take hold.
For instance, some are still worshipping at the altar of individualism, insisting that it is their right to go out in public without needing to protect others by covering their faces. Others argue that the price of getting the economy going again means we must accept that some will become sick and even die.
Or consider this recent unheavenly headline: “US billionaires added $282 billion to their wealth in just 23 days as millions lose jobs.”
Or ponder this: big business quietly gobbled up the federal loan monies intended for small businesses and churches. Enterprises in need found the cupboard bare.
I was born just a little too late to become a hippie, but not so late that I couldn’t see that they understood Jesus’ kingdom realities in ways neither church nor society had. Or could.
For instance, hippies recognized how dangerous unchecked individualism can be. How blind obedience to a culture’s values and priorities serve no earthly good. How genuine care for one another and our planet have the power to make us whole.
Those “countercultural rebels” had a lot more in common with the community that the Spirit breathed into being at Pentecost than we might have imagined.
The pandemic has laid bare many things—like the glaring inequities and inadequacies in American health care, like the real and utterly frightening margins many workers in our country are living on, like the responsibility that people of faith and goodwill now bear to demand that ours be a more just economy, a responsibility our congregation certainly shares.
The same Spirit that brooded over the waters at creation, the same Spirit that fell upon Jesus as he was coming up out of the Jordan, the same Spirit that transformed and then multiplied a community of believers, is on the move even now. Especially now.
We who earnestly and often pray “on earth as it is in heaven,” we who ache for this prayer to find and fill us, can be sure that the Spirit among us here and now, extricating us from the illusion of separateness, freeing us from our fears, calling us out of our ideas about who owns what, and into a life here on earth that more fully resembles heaven’s ways.
No, we won’t ever have roads paved with gold or angels playing harps or Jesus inviting us to read an eternity of books. “On earth as it is in heaven” bestows something far better. Something hinted at in the life of Jesus and so beautifully expressed among his earliest followers as the Book of Acts reminds us:
“Day by day, as they spent time together in the temple, as they broke bread and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” And day by day the Lord added to their number those who fell under the spell of the selfless, unifying love Jesus lived, proclaimed, and shared.
Let us pray:
Gracious God, we who have been a part of Community Spirit are grateful that from the beginning you have shown us how heaven can be made manifest here on earth. Thank you for the countless prompts that have led us to care and share, that have taught us to trust your generosity and grace, that have inspired us to live the life experienced by the earliest church.
Enable us in these trying times to bear witness to the kingdom, just as Jesus’ first followers did. Help us not keep your beautiful secret to ourselves, but grant us the courage and capacity to share it with others, be they family or friends, neighbors and even strangers. You are a multiplier, O God, not a divider, and so we turn to you to help us share the riches you have set within our young congregation.
God, you are living in us. Breathing through us. Present in the now. Your kingdom is alive right now. Let us release it through our acts of love.
All this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.