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There Are Two Ways . . .

. 6 min read
John 1:1-2:2

Sunday message, April 12, by Joel Shuman. (Thanks, Joel, for bringing the word while I was away. Sorry, all, for the lack of video.) 
are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference
between the two ways.” So begins the ancient Christian text called the Didachē, or “The Teaching of the
Twelve,” produced sometime around the end of the first century—making it older,
incidentally, than several New Testament texts. I won’t offer many details
about this ancient catechetical document, other than to say it places the way
of Jesus—his life, teachings, death and resurrection—and the difference those
events make in stark contrast with business-as-usual in a world characterized
by a profound brokenness manifest in unfettered self-interest and the isolation
and violence it inevitably entails.
first line from the Didachē brings to
my mind another more contemporary text
contrasting two distinct ways (of life). It is the poem “Manifesto: The Mad
Farmer Liberation Front,” written by Wendell Berry, whom I regard as being among
my most important mentors. It begins this way:
Love the quick profit, the annual
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

This first stanza pretty well sums up what the Didachē calls the way of death. It
depicts a life dominated by fear—frantic,
worried, selfish, and utterly predictable, cradle to grave. It is a life shaped
by the assumption that we live in a world of profound scarcity, which in turn leads
us to hold our possessions tightly; to see others as competition for scarce
resources, or as resources themselves, to be exploited for our pleasure, or
worst of all as enemies to be avoided or imprisoned or if necessary killed. It
is a life pointed squarely toward uncritical lockstep membership in the church
of Mammon; a life that isn’t really life at all, but rather what the twentieth
century novelist Walker Percy called “the living death… death in the name of
isms and asms… enthusiasm, liberalism, conservatism, Communism, Buddhism,
Americanism, for an ism is only another way of despairing of the truth.”

As women and men united through baptism to the death and
resurrection of Jesus, we do not need
to despair of the truth. We do not need to continue in captivity to the living
death, for by God’s grace we can know
the truth, and by that same grace we can live
it. The truth is, as one of my favorite preachers says, that the God we gather
here to worship doesn’t leave dead things dead. The truth is, as we declared to
each other when we gathered this morning, that Christ is risen. God’s extravagantly
generous reign has broken into history, and the power of death—living and
otherwise—is broken, now and forever. Christ is risen, and that changes, or
should change, everything—everything about the way we think, and everything
about the way we live, for we are now free to follow the Didachē’s first way, the way of life.
But just what does this “way of life” look like? One of this
week’s lectionary texts, from the fourth chapter of the book of Acts, gives us
a particularly clear instance. It is a story of the members of the Church in
Jerusalem during the days following the resurrection. The author of Acts, Paul’s
friend Luke, clearly wants his readers to understand that community’s life together
as an example to be followed, if not in letter, then at the very least in
spirit and practice.
Perhaps the best one-word description of the community
depicted in this text is “fearless.” They had witnessed the irruption of the
kingdom of God into the brokenness of the world and had been utterly
transformed by that experience. Selfishness, greed, and wariness of the other were
nowhere to be found among them, for they had become a people whose entire life
together was devoted to showing the world that because Christ was risen and the
power of death broken, a different
way, the way of life was now
possible. This conviction so unified them that they are described as being “of
one heart and soul,” and their singleness of purpose was displayed above all in
their fearless generosity. The word “mine” had been purged from their
vocabulary, and replaced by “ours”—or perhaps it would be better to say
“God’s.” The notion of private property, so essentially dear to us, had become
to them an absurdity, for they understood that everything they had, including and
perhaps especially their lives, was pure gift, given not to be hoarded or
wasted, but used and shared.  The very
idea that a sister or brother should be allowed to continue in need of an
adequate share of the goods of Creation—to go hungry or naked or homeless or
alone—when others among them had more than enough was to them anathema, and so they freely shared all they had.
The Resurrection, you see, had made possible a new kind of
human community, the fearlessness of which was not based in any sort of
reckless disregard for life or any private, quasi-mystical, “God will provide”
piety. Rather, this community’s fearlessness came from its members’ love for
and trust in God and one another, from their knowledge that no matter what
misfortune might befall any one of them, there were sisters and brothers who
had their back, and who could be counted upon to care for them and provide for
their needs. They were a people who fully embodied Paul’s description of the
“body of Christ” in 1 Corinthians 12, for they believed entirely that “God
[had] so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member,
that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the
same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer
together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
As countercultural and counterintuitive as all this sounds,
it’s important to note that we here at Christ church are not absolute strangers
to it. We have in our midst women and men who are striving to live out their
resurrection faith—people like Lee and Shirley Wetzel, who for years have given
of their time and resources to serve the poor in our community through the work
of the local food bank; or Joanne Hagner, who has been, as they say, “all in”
by investing deeply in the lives of our youth and modeling for them the service
characteristic of those who take the Resurrection seriously; or Mike Case and
the Care Team he leads, who take time to give themselves to the sickest and
loneliest among us. There are others, to be sure, but those folks in particular
stand out in my mind.
Luke invites all of us, every one of whom share with those
first believers the same faith, Spirit, and baptism that made them who they
were, the opportunity to share as well in their fearlessness. There is nothing
glib in this invitation; the world we inhabit is no less scary today than it
was in Roman-occupied first century Palestine. How, then, do we start? How do we become an “Easter people”? There are
no easy answers to that question, but perhaps there is some wisdom about it to
be gleaned from some of the remaining lines of the poem I began reading a few
minutes earlier, where the writer describes what for him, at least, is the “way
of life”:
So, friends, every day
do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it…
Give your approval to
all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed…
As soon as the generals
and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Practice resurrection. When all else is said and
done, that is the Christian life:
coming together every week to hear the story told and see it embodied and
enacted in bread and cup; encouraging and sometimes even admonishing each other
to “press on,” as Paul said, “toward the goal for the prize of the high call of
God in Christ Jesus”; offering each other in the peace we exchange every week the
assurance that whatever happens to you, whatever needs you have, I will be
there for you; slowly and painstakingly being transformed by grace, delivered
from the fear that makes us say “mine” of the gifts we have been given. Whether
we know it or not, and sometimes in spite of all appearances to the contrary,
God is at work in our midst, turning us into Easter people. Thanks be to God.