Contrary to popular assumption and in many cases widespread belief, vibrant and healthy Christian communities have two key characteristics. Healthy Christian communities have a tolerance for doubt. – being communities that recognise that the seeds of faith are most often sown in the fields of doubt. Healthy Christian communities also prioritize human pastoral needs over doctrinal beliefs – communities where belonging comes before believing. To paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer being Christian adds nothing to being human, being Christian puts being human into practice.
The American religious landscape is dominated by church traditions where doubt is seen as the enemy of faith and where correct believing opens the doors to belonging – where to admit to honest doubt closes the doors to membership.
The Episcopal Church and its Anglican Tradition stand in vital opposition to the prevailing expressions of both conservative and populist Christianity in America. Anglican Tradition and experience has always prioritized belonging over believing. Our experience – in tolerating doubt and prioritizing belonging – reflects the Scriptural accounts of life in the first Christian communities – depictions coming to us through the earliest N.T. accounts of early Christian community.
John the Evangelist gives us the earliest account of Christian community in his description of events taking place over two consecutive Sunday evenings following the death of the man Jesus and his resurrection as the Messiah or the Christ. He begins:
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Temple police, Jesus came and stood among them – he showed them his hand and side and said ‘Peace be with you’. Then he puffed into them saying ‘Receive the Holy Spirit”.
It’s not doors with metal locks, but hearts barricaded by fear that Jesus penetrates. In showing them his wounds, Jesus demonstrates to them – look it’s me, Jesus, and I’m real – I’m not an apparition. Despite the obvious facts that his post resurrection body seems not to be constrained by the normal material limitations – his wounded and scarred human flesh remains the primary identifier of his resurrection body. His wounds show the continuity between before and after – joining his crucified human body with his resurrected body.
Jesus then breathes on them. John uses the Greek pneuma for which a better translation in this context is puff. Jesus puffs the Spirit into them. From pneuma we derive the English adjective pneumatic to describe the action of puffing up or inflating with breath. In Genesis, God puffed breath-wind-spirit into Adam’s nostrils. Jesus puffs the Holy Spirit – the breath-wind of God into his deflated disciples – inflating them into a pneumatic and dynamic community.
John goes on to depict Jesus’ return visit to the disciples one week later – a visit seemingly to encounter Thomas who had earlier announced his doubt – a need for physical proof before he could believe. The epithet doubting Thomas is unfair. He wasn’t the only one to doubt human hearsay. Remember the male disciples had only earlier in the day refused to take Mary and the women’s word that they had seen the risen Lord.
It seems that for Jesus doubt is no barrier to membership in him. What excludes is not honest doubt but anxious fear. We might conclude from John 20 that faith’s opposite is not doubt but fear and the seeds of faith are sown in the fields of doubt.
But it is the pneumatic inflation of the disciples into a dynamic community that is the remarkable discovery from John 20.
In Chapter 4 in Luke’s Acts we have Luke’s second vivid portrait of the community of the first followers of Jesus.
We are surprised to find that within a short space of time a community has sprung up from the band of followers which displays the signs of an incredible pneumatic vitality. We are further surprised to note their shared heartbeat -a bold generosity and willingness to risk departing from conventional ways of living – a community where belonging is an important as believing.
Many preachers have been quick to deduce from Luke’s description of the Jerusalem community – an early blueprint for Christian socialism. The question that is hard to answer is given what we know about human nature did the Jerusalem community really live this way? The next portion of the chapter tells us of Ananias and Sapphira – who sold property but secretly squirrelled away some of the proceeds for their exclusive use – giving us a glimpse that not everyone was able to rise to demand to hold all in common.
But there is no reason to seriously doubt Luke’s overall depiction. For how else could a fledgling community of mostly poor folk survive in the midst of a wider hostile context? It’s also clear that their encounter with the risen Christ’s pneumatic inflation of the Holy Spirit into them was an every moment experience that accounts for their radical transformation of perspective. For them – as Paul’s fledgling communities continually attest – the power of the risen Christ has turned every normal expectation on its head and they are living in a radically new way.
Taking these two factors together leads us to reasonably deduce that koinonia – the common life – where each gives according to their ability and each receives according to their need – resulted from both material necessity and pneumatic empowerment.
That is then, but what about now? Despite the model of early Christian community presenting a continued challenge to us which we ignore at our peril – the point for us lies not in the simplistic demand to adopt early Christian or even later Christian socialist koinonia as a blueprint for our communal life. The question is more how might this power for transformation inherent in gospel-shaped lives bear witness among us?
Matt Skinner notes that something greater than charity and mission was operating in the community Luke depicts; believers are living out a commitment to belong to one another by addressing the impediments that get in the way of doing so.
Willie James Jennings, the current professor of theology and Africana Studies at Yale, knocks the proverbial nail on the head when speaking of Luke’s depiction of the Jerusalem community he notes that
Coming out of the experience of the pandemic during which our world has shifted on its axis in a way that is in some sense comparable to the early Christian experience of the post resurrection Christ – we are in a moment of time when new directions open up – directions hitherto considered as only unrealistic possibilities.
The long-term learning from the pandemic – galvanized by our current experience of imposed isolation and social distancing – offers us a renewed vision of Christian belonging – We have an urgent opportunity to creatively process our guilt as those relatively unscathed who nevertheless cannot sit unchanged in the face of nakedly exposed fault lines that maintain injustice and gross inequality.
The community Luke depicts may not be exactly a workable blueprint for us, but it might be a visionary encouragement for new directions of travel as we commit to using our resources and privilege to destroy what resources and privilege usually create – impediments to belonging and believing together.