One of the treats of the Easter season every year is hearing readings from the Acts of the Apostles. At the beginning of Acts, Jesus’ boneheaded disciples receive the Holy Spirit and are transformed into dynamic heroes of the faith. Miracles happen. Peter proclaims the gospel with great power. Thousands join the movement. It is an exciting time.
In our reading for this morning, we get our earliest description of what can properly be called the Church, the community of Christian believers.
And I am struck with how similar we are in many ways.
We learn that “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Check. We do that. Or at least, we commit to doing that every time we renew our baptismal covenant, as we have done twice in just the last few weeks.
We learn that “they had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Well, we don’t do that one. It turns out, they didn’t either, at least not for long. Already in Paul’s ministry, which began just a couple of years after this, Christians mostly didn’t give away all their property. Instead Paul encouraged them “to put aside [each Sunday] and save whatever extra you earn” to support the mission and ministry of the Church (1 Corinthians 16:2). So we are OK there, too.
But we differ pretty dramatically right now in something I have always taken for granted. Acts tells us that “all who believed were together.” Again, “day by day… they spent much time together in the temple.” Most years the same would be true for us. But not this year.
Our separation is necessary. But it is also means that we can’t be Church right now in one of the obvious, taken-for-granted ways that we have been Church for the past two thousand years.
That is a burden. But, as I have said many times in the last few weeks, there is also gift in this unprecedented moment. We are being forced to turn to Scripture with fresh eyes, to seek guidance on what God would have us do, now that many of our old ways are necessarily on hold.
And as we turn to Scripture with fresh eyes, new things begin to jump out. I notice for the first time that though the early Christians spent much time together in the temple, they also “broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God.”
We can do that. We can’t break bread together. We can’t celebrate Eucharist as we normally would. But we can still share a spiritual communion. And every meal can be a kind of mini-Eucharist as long as we, too, eat with glad and generous hearts, praising God.
But it is our Gospel reading that I find most helpful for this time. And I don’t just mean this time of quarantine. I mean guidance for right now, for questions that I have been wrestling with this week.
Jesus uses a parable that is a little confusing at first. But the image is a familiar one. Jesus is the good shepherd. We are Jesus’ flock. Right now, we are stuck in the sheepfold. We are stuck in our different versions of quarantine.
But our good shepherd comes to us in our different sheepfolds. Our good shepherd opens the gate. Our good shepherd calls us by name. Our good shepherd leads us out.
We need to be careful here. Jesus is NOT leading us out so that we can do exactly the things we used to do. Jesus is NOT inviting us to violate quarantine and put our own health or the health of others at risk. If we come out of quarantine too soon, we will experience more infections and deaths, particularly among our most vulnerable populations. Just last Wednesday, Massachusetts recorded the highest single-day death total so far, along with nearly 2000 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 infections. We need to continue to do what we can to be safe and to keep others safe.
No, this is a new moment, and it calls for a new kind of discipleship. The question is, what is Jesus calling us to do now, even while we continue to shelter in place?
In my experience, things began to shift this week.
When everything first shut-down, my immediate concern was the safety and well-being of our people. We began streaming services, and calling each other, and doing whatever we could to support each other and our common life. By now, we have more or less established a “new normal,” with something like our regular round of worship and Bible Study, except that it is all online.
We were doing something similar at my house, as I assume everyone was. In our case, Nicholas and Benjamin came home, to Carrie’s and my great joy.
Then came the inevitable adjustments. We began creating new routines. Our new routines included a delicate dance around the use of our one shower. Our new routines included a significantly expanded food budget and a good bit of additional time cooking and cleaning. When the quarantine began, Carrie bought what she thought was several weeks’ worth of food. But young men can eat. We polished it all off in just a few days.
After a couple of weeks, we had more or less figured it out. Then I got it into my head that I might have the virus. I spent a week living in my home office, which turned out to be not all bad, particularly given how much cooking and cleaning was happening. I couldn’t help because I was supposed to stay in my room. Whenever I got hungry, I would text Carrie to bring me some food. When I was done, I put my plate outside my door. Carrie warned me not to get used to it. She told me I would have to come out some day.
That day was last Wednesday. Within an hour, Nicholas was openly longing for me to be back in quarantine. Carrie wasn’t far behind him. Long-suffering Benjamin does his best to be sweet, while at the same time ignoring me as much as possible. All in all, life is back to a weird kind of normal.
And I find, for the first time since the shut-down began, that I can think about the world beyond my home and Saint David’s. For the first time since the shut-down began, I have begun to hear a quiet call to embrace God’s larger mission, to do my part, for us to do our part, to bring good news to the poor and to bind up the broken-hearted.
Many of you have probably been thinking about this for a while. But only now do I find myself asking, what is Christ calling us to do beyond the limits of our own sheepfolds? We can’t really be with other people. But surely there are things we can do, things Christ is calling us to do, even now.
Our vestry began wrestling with this question last week. We, or at least I, don’t yet know the answer. But asking the question is a first step.
And so I invite everyone hearing me now to prayerfully reflect on what Christ is calling us to do. Share your thoughts with me and with each other. Together we can hear better. And together we can make a difference.
May Christ help us to hear and to follow. In his name. Amen.
 Jacquelyn Voghel, “COVID-19 deaths hit single-day high,” Daily Hampshire Gazette, page 1, April 30, 2020.
5/6/2020 12:23:43 pm
I found your closing words to be the most helpful. When we take time to think about what we can do, we stop feeling helpless. While we are limited in concrete actions that we can take now, it is important to realize that being limited is far different from being helpless. As Jane Goodall said in a recent interview, when we give up hope, we become apathetic. We need to fight this apathy. Maintaining hope that we can make a difference and striving to make that difference are the best ways to combat apathy.
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Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan