Text: Acts 2:42-47 and Acts 4:32-37 (sharing everything in common)
When I was a child, I was fascinated by Hippies. Starting at age 11 in 1968, I let my hair grow long. I was trying to emulate the long hairs I had seen on the news during the 1967 “Summer of Love” in San Francisco and who were reflected, however imperfectly, on TV shows like “The Smothers Brothers” and “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.”
It wasn’t easy to connect with people in the counter-culture in the small industrial city of Cornwall Ontario. The closest link was probably the Hi-C youth group of the church where my father was minister, Knox United. My older brother and sister were members, and I remember one Sunday service in 1968 led by the Hi-C group, which they called “Revolution.” It included guitar and drum music, and I was intrigued.
Back then, a lot of people connected Jesus to the Hippies. Like them, Jesus was a long-haired, sandal-wearing rebel who gathered social undesirables around him who ate, drank, and partied with him in ways that defied the rules of both the religious elite and Rome. The Broadway productions “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” made these connections explicit. At the same time, so-called Jesus Freaks started appearing on the sidewalks of cities across North America, including Montreal, which my family visited several times a year.
Today’s readings from Acts show the first followers of Jesus living together and sharing everything in common. The first Christians were Hippies, it seems; and perhaps we should be too.
The Hippies of the 60’s and 70’s tried to live out utopian visions created by artists. I loved reading science fiction utopias, starting with Robert Heinlein’s 1967 novel “The Moon is A Harsh Mistress.” It portrays a lunar colony in the year 2076 in which both group marriage and anarchism flourish. Reading it as a child widened my cultural horizons in ways that continue to resonate.
I didn’t read Aldous Huxley’s final novel “Island” until I was an adult. But the fact that he published it in 1962 also shows the tenor of the times. It portrays a utopian community on a island in Asia that combines the technocratic humanism of a Scottish doctor with Buddhism. The youth of the island are encouraged to use psychedelic drugs to spur spiritual growth.
In the 1970s, I was influenced by feminist visions of how a perfect community might look. Ursala K. LeGuin’s 1974 novel “The Dispossessed” and Marge Piercy’s 1976 novel “Woman on the Edge of Time” were stories about radical democracies that were woman-led and gender non-conforming, They seemed much more appealing to me than the war- and competition-obsessed reality of the day.
Of course, writing fiction about utopian communities is easier than creating and sustaining them in real life. There were numerous back-to-the land communes created in the 1960s and 70s across North America, and almost all of them fell apart after a few years. And although violence and gender inequality have continued to lessen since the end of World War II, the current backlash against diversity and against the rights of women and queer people threaten to reverse these trends.
The history of the church since the time of Jesus also shows the difficulties. The first followers of Jesus may have lived in communes, but not many of us do so today.
The first time I preached on the readings we heard from Acts today was three years ago. In that sermon I wrote about the shadow side of its vision, which is found in the 11 verses of Acts that follow the ones we heard today (Acts 5:1-11). They tell of a husband and wife, Ananias and Sapphira, who sell their property, join the church, but only give half of their money to the community.
When Peter confronts first Ananias and then Sapphira with this fact, they fall down dead, one after the other. The final verse reads, “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.”
No wonder! It is one thing to live in a commune, but another to have God strike you dead if you don’t give the commune everything.
Today, most churches are not communes. We may wish to live out values of compassion, mutual aid, and resistance to empire. But out of necessity we find ourselves conforming to the world and its values as well as rebelling against them.
Today’s society is not an ideal one. Although extreme poverty and everyday violence continue to decline, the chief engine of society is still competition. Companies, economic sectors, and nations compete with each other. This spurs vast changes in technology and economic capability even as it continues to transform the world in ways that we both love and loathe.
In my lifetime the world population has more than doubled, the physical environment has been radically degraded, and social and technological change continue to accelerate off the charts. It is a culture that I find both endlessly fascinating and distressing.
In a society that is driven by competition to grow without limits, many of us crave a counter-culture. This is one of the reasons we join a church.
At church, we focus on sacred values that are both ancient and forward-looking. The God of Love revealed in the stories of Jesus is both comforting and disruptive. Worshipping this God leads us to acts of compassion and protest. In the face of competition, we proclaim cooperation in word and deed. In the face of selfishness, we stress our interdependence and practice sharing. In the face of rumours of war, we work for peace with justice and try to live out a unity that respects diversity.
None of this is easy. But I find it infinitely worthwhile. In a world of frenzied activity, we crave silence and prayer. In minds and hearts that are immersed in consumerism and prideful nationalism, we crave messages of humanism and cooperation. In families that are distorted by past traumas and human frailty, we seek a chosen family of love and care that can help us move closer to our ideals.
Utopian visions can help, I believe. The writer of Acts gives us a brief glimpse of such a vision. Science fiction and feminist authors give us others. They can inspire our imaginations and fuel our desire for change.
Every time we come together as fellow pilgrims — whether for Sunday worship, or memorial services, or Monday evening sharing circles — we get a chance to live into a vision of utopia.
At the Table of Jesus, we become an ideal family of love and sharing as we re-enact a path of death and resurrection. It is a path that helps us die to old ways of competition and rise closer to a life of sharing and wholeness.
Fifty years after 1968, my hair may be shorter and my youthful idealism may be tarnished by decades of personal disappointments and social cynicism. But I still cherish the vision of a world purged of fear and violence.
Each time we gather with other seekers and pilgrims, we taste the life we want — in song and silence and in prayer and sharing. We gather as chosen family of faith, hope and love where the logic of empire dissolves in the gentle and powerful drumbeats of love.
Do we ever do this perfectly? Of course not. But we gather again and again, to serve and be served, and to remind ourselves that we come from Love, that Love that calls us to action, and that it is to Love that we all return.
Thanks be to God.