"They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved...All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles' feet."
Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37
That's a revolutionary expression of community. That model of fellowship without borders was the hallmark of Jesus' relationships. Not just with his disciples but with those society wouldn't touch. The church of Acts are living with that same authenticity, vulnerability and generosity. They live grace, they are church. Those words aren't theological constructs, they're dynamic adjectives.
Their faith changed the world. Theirs a religion built around the service and love of those around them. Theirs a fundamentally relational pursuit of Jesus. Somewhere in the annals of history we dropped the ball. Religion became a dirty word bound up in ritual and show, dominated by fear, judgement and hypocrisy, not synonymous with the Gospel of 'good news' but seen to be something manipulative and controlling.
That's not the true story. When the Archbishop of York was asked about his thoughts on Big Society he claimed the idea as a rebranding of what the church has been doing since its birth. For Sentamu (whose full article is well worth a read), Big Society's just another name for the wheels which the church, alongside others, has consistently been involved with oiling for the last couple of thousand years.
Following the Spending Review the state is going to shrink, and there will be a reduction in services. There will be increasing needs and the church has the infrastructure, human resources and experience to contribute to finding solutions - the Church of England provides 23.2 million hours of voluntary service per month (and that's just one chunk of The Church). More specific is Acts 4:35 an initiative of Archbishop Sentamu that provides a mechanism for giving money directly to others for specific purposes (in many ways it's a local version of Kiva).
That's great, as is our local commitment to The Besom. But we are absolutely wrong if we think that we're the only people who care about kindling community and getting involved with transforming the lives around us. I might not enjoy the political rhetoric and cost-cutting reality that surrounds us at the moment but I do love the fact that there are lots of people who are exploring opportunities and experimenting with technology to give voice to the voiceless and support those who might otherwise fall through the gaps.
Sadly God's hands and feet are conspicuous in their absence. This just doesn't make sense. I can't get my head around why we're not round those tables, entering those debates and talking about the kind of compassion that hurts. The Acts model of community was radical 2,000 years ago and nothing has changed. What are we waiting for?
If it's permission we're looking for then the irony is that Acts 2 models of community are being spoken about and developed, probably by people completely oblivious to what's written in the New Testament. Maybe it's time we twigged that there's universality to the wheel? God doesn't always need us to start something, or for it to wear his brand or come under his 'ownership' for it to bring him glory and transform lives.
Is the Acts 2 challenge too hard given the busyness of life? I hear that, my daily commute sees me out of York for 12 hours a day. How do I foster meaningful community with those around me?Well, perhaps these four things which are already set up and focused on building relationship, fostering community and living generously can provide us with a platform inside church but also in dismantling the walls around our worshipping community.
The Big Lunch began life at The Eden Project a couple of years ago and encourages neighbours to spend the day with one another through street parties. Christine and I hosted one for our street in 2008 and it was brilliant (sadly we were both out of the country this year), instead of church on June 5th 2011 why don't we shut up St Mike's and break bread with our neighbours?
Flock Local was born at Glasgow's Social Innovation Camp last June. The premise is pretty simple - directing the energy of a flash mob into an activity with a social purpose. The website provides a front end for listing local events and a mechanism for people to register, communicate and pitch in.
Street Bank exists to help people share what they've got with people in their locality. Sign up, list the skills you can offer your neighbours or the things you've got to lend or give away and see what happens.
Street Club overlaps the others and is a sophisticated approach to providing digital foundations to a local community. It's designed to be a private online members club that revolves around ten key words - discuss, volunteer, ask, share, recommend, give, trade, play, save and party. There is something daunting about a resource this comprehensive but then it isn't a website designed for individuals is it?
This week Conversations starts life in its latest venue (upstairs in The Graduate, formerly Varsity). I'm (justifiably) proud to belong to a community that hopefully looks like that early church. I hope we're not just a community for ourselves but one that is committed to getting stuck into the world around us. We're here to follow Jesus and that means pouring ourselves out for the people of York, til it hurts. Maybe signing up to a few websites can help?