Collective Will

Sunday 8th April 2018
The Second Sunday of Easter
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Acts 4.32-35
John 20.19-31

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Many years ago when I was working with blind children in Africa, a Christian organisation built a braille printing press  in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia and, as befitted that at least nominally communist country, the first braille book to come out of the press, to the horror of its builders, was Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto. Perhaps if the builders had read our passage from Acts they would have been less horrified!

But not much less. It has been much more our practice since the end of the first millennium to focus our religious life on attaining individual salvation for our supposed individual souls in what can only be termed self-centredness as opposed to thinking of ourselves, collectively, as the body of Christ which stands or falls together. It was as the result of this shift from the collective to ther personal which gave rise to the massive structure of chantry masses and indulgences to which Martin Luther properly objected; but he, and other 16th Century reformers, focused exclusively on personal salvation, a position echoed by the new piety of the Roman Catholic counter Reformation; so that if you look at our hymnals and prayer books, particularly during Lent but nicely represented by today's Collect on Justification, you will see masses of material about how we, personally, are dreadful sinners who look to the Cross for our salvation which is all very well in its way, as far as it goes, but such a framework for Christian life steers well clear of our Reading from Acts.

In fact, throughout the history of Western Christianity since the coronation of the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, on Christmas Day 800, the Church, in spite of monastic hospitality and good works, has invariably sided with the powerful and rich against the rest. Within a decade of the Reformation, Martin Luther had sided with the German princes against the peasants and as late as the 1960s the Roman Catholic Church tried to ban the liberation theology that quite properly captivated Latin America. We have largely taken the story of the Exodus, the liberation of an oppressed people, out of our understanding of the Eucharist, we have cut down the lilies of the field and put them in crystal vase, and we have transferred the Kingdom of God which we are here to build, lock stock and barrel from this earth to some miasmic notion of heaven. We have not so much cherry picked our Christianity as uprooted the Gospel, then ploughed and planted our own version.

Now it can - and indeed should - be argued that I cannot preach a sermon such as this from my position of relative affluence and comfort; and I agree. It is all very well for me to say that I do my bit for Oxfam, the community and this church, but that surely is not enough; and the explanation that I cannot do more because, well, I'm a sinner like everybody else, clearly doesn't fully cover the situation.

My only defence lies in this: that our humanity, as created by God, in the make-up of our genes, is both accumulative - saving against a rainy day - and competitive, keeping other people out. That human tendency is reinforced by England's historically obsessive relationship with private property. The clue in our Reading from Acts is that it is really difficult to hold all goods in common when you are trying to do it on your own. Christianity is at its best not when it is privately beating its breast but when it is striving to make poverty history. Christianity is performing its essential kingdom building task not when we focus on our individual chances of "going to heaven" but when we work together to build the Kingdom of God here on earth as it is in Heaven.

Which brings us to our Gospel Reading which is almost always misunderstood to be exclusively a commentary on Thomas's refusal to accept the word of Jesus but it is also a commentary on Thomas's refusal to believe what his fellow followers of Jesus told him. The comment near the end of the passage where Jesus says those will be blessed who have not seen and yet believe, which applies to us, does not mitigate the mistrust on the first evening of the Resurrection when Thomas, almost certainly having heard the stories of the women earlier in the day, dismissed the collective testimony of his friends. Trust is what holds enterprise together and it is a tribute to the power of the Resurrection that by the time of  our Reading from Acts there is such mutual trust that holding all goods in common is possible.

Socialist enterprises throughout history, within and outside churches, have failed because of our favouring of the individual over the collective; time and again, individuals have slacked because they see, or think they see, others slacking; nobody sees why he should support freeloaders. But doing good, building the Kingdom, does not involve a human contract which limits our good behaviour to the level of others so that we all reach the lowest common denominator. Our collective contract, since the New, liberating Covenant of the Exodus-generated Eucharist is a contract with God, under-written by the sacred solidarity with the human lot, of the Crucifixion. It might be possible, even plausible, to see Good Friday as the moment when we were saved from our own individual sins but it is much more than that: the death of Jesus on Good Friday is the confirmation of the Eucharistic Covenant which says that the time will come when earth and heaven will be fully joined in the eternal Kingdom of God because the penalty of death imposed by our acquisition of the knowledge of good and evil - our Eden moment, if you like - was lifted forever on that morning when Mary Magdalen and the other women were the first to see all of the promises of Jesus realised.

As I said, kingdom building is hard enough, but without trust and mutuality it is impossible; and while all our urges seem to be to look inwards to ourselves, all our obligations, our responsibilities, are to look outward; necessary though it is to achieve a listening relationship with God, the Kingdom doesn't get built through the exercise of personal piety but through the operation of collective will.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!