Judges 21:25 NRSV (See also Judges 2:10–17)
In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.
Acts 4:32–35 NRSV
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
When I talk to many Christians these days, one of the things everyone seems to agree on is that the world is getting worse every day. People have fond memories of the past—when the church was full, when the American dream seemed to be a possibility, and when everyone they knew and respected held to the same strict moral code. Nowadays, people seem to talk about the decline of the church, the intangibility of the American dream, and the rejection of morality. We frequently hear that the heart of American society needs to change so that we might see an end to violence and exploitation. In former times, people may have done what was right, but now people do what is right in their own eyes. (Or, so that story goes.)
Then again, maybe that narrative of decline tells us more about who is in the church than it does about what things are really like. We each have a different frame of reference that is defined by our age and experience. Those among us who witnessed the baby boom of the 1950s, and the growth of the church that followed, could reasonably see today as a decline from that height. But for many Americans, the 50s and 60s were a time of great struggle, as African Americans fought for equal treatment under the law. Shut out from the suburbs by racial discrimination and legislated into “separate but [supposedly] equal” institutions, many don’t have any such glory days to look back to. The time which we might view as the most moral was also the time in which many were crying out for justice and righteousness to roll down like waters.
But no matter what stories we tell about the ways today is either the same or different from times past, our relatively short frames of reference are challenged by the wisdom of Scripture. From the beginning of time, humanity has been plagued with a desire to do what is right in our own eyes. In the garden of Eden, the command not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil itself became the temptation to eat from that tree. The very first murder—that act committed by Cain against Abel—was an instance of one doing what was right in his own eyes without considering the needs of his brother. Cain uttered that infamous line upon being asked about his brother, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
God’s creative intent for humanity was that the answer would be a firm yes! Adam and Eve were given to each other to help and care for one another, and so too the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood were created as bonds of mutual care and dependence. It’s no wonder that, before the flood, God regretted making human beings. We’re absolutely awful! There is so much good in the world, and we’re quite good at ruining it!
Even still, God didn’t give up. When humanity’s inclination toward evil led the Egyptians to enslave the people of Israel, God acted decisively to free them from that oppression. God gave them a covenant, by which they would learn to care for one another.
But it was tough going. The human heart is a stubborn thing. The book of Judges tells us that after Moses and then Joshua lead the people into the promised land, they in time forgot about the God who delivered them from Egypt. The generations of Israelites failed to keep the faith, failed to witness to God’s work among them, and eventually failed to be connected to God at all. They turned to other gods, placing other things before the God who had rescued them. They ceased to care for the things God had asked of them. Even when the Lord raised up judges to lead them, they did not listen. They went their own way. They followed their new gods rather than the God of the Creation and Exodus, participating in whatever exploitive and violent system those new gods required. Most important in their new pantheon of gods was the god of the self. They did what was right in their own eyes.
As the teacher of Ecclesiastes says, there really is nothing new under the sun. The story of the age of the Judges is the story of us all. There seems to be a great deal of finger-pointing today when it comes to who is at fault for the problems of our present world order, but I think we all have to start with our own selves, because the evil of selfishness transcends all generations and all socio-economic backgrounds. We all tend to do what we want, as Cain did, and then once something bad happens as a result, we claim innocence. “We’re not our brother’s keeper,” we exclaim. We just do what seems good to us. We work to build up our careers, our reputations, our bank and investment accounts without a second thought about the casualties of our actions. Even if we’re not particularly well off, our selfish desires can get in the way as we fight for what we think we deserve. As we come together in the workplace, in the church, and in our community looking out for #1 above all else, things just get worse. We become focused on the wrong things and become so focused on maintaining our institutions that we forget why they exist in the first place.
The church can be the worst example of this, because we end up looking like every other institution on the planet. Our tithes and offerings become a way of paying our dues or of gaining influence rather than as a way of giving thanks for what God has given us. The church becomes something we belong to, like the gym or the Rotary. It’s another social gathering, another place to worship the gods of power, influence, money, and self-determination.
We so easily lose our proper orientation. We cast aside the way of Christ and keep going the same direction we would have gone anyway. We may pray for direction for show, so that others see our piety, but we as humans are so unwilling to really listen and respond to God’s guidance. How often do we hear God telling us to do exactly what we want to do anyway?
In the days of the Judges and ours, we do whatever is right in our own eyes.
But wait, what power did we experience last weekend? What event did we commemorate? What truth did we lift up as the greatest and most world changing truth that has ever been spoken? What event did we witness that has the power to break the power of our sin and upset our complacency?
We said together that JESUS CHRIST IS RISEN — He is risen indeed.
Do you believe it?
If we truly confess with our lips that Jesus Christ is now Lord of heaven and earth and believe in our heart that he was resurrected from the dead, then something about our world is going to have to change! If the powers of sin and death have truly been defeated, then we ought to see some evidence of it.
We may have seen in Judges and in our world examples of the only verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith–original sin (as Richard Niebuhr famously said), but in Acts 4 we are given a glimpse of the difference the resurrection of Jesus Christ can have on our world.
Acts 4 tells us about a subset of the world that was in stark contrast to the world of the Judges. While in former times, people had done what was right in their own eyes, refusing to be their brother and sister’s keeper, in this Spirit-filled resurrection church, everyone cared for one another with everything they had. They offered testimony to what Christ had done, not only with their words, but with their care for the needy and their unity in love. They didn’t just commune with the triune God while eating the bread and cup around the table, but instead were united with God and each other in every moment of life.
They were rich in the fact that they had nothing for themselves. In our world, individual property rights are at the core of society. But in the church, their wealth was based not on what they owned themselves—since everything was a gift from God anyway—but it was based on what they had together for their shared use.
They no longer made decisions in order to benefit themselves or do what was right in their own eyes, but rather they looked to the will of God in everything they did. They didn’t view themselves in light of their individual agency, but rather placed themselves under the authority of God and their fellow brothers and sisters.
They no longer tried to stockpile their own goods for themselves, knowing that it wouldn’t do any good then anyway. Instead, they relied on God like the Israelites relied on God’s provision of manna in the desert. They didn’t hold anything back, but made the best use of what God was providing for them.
Some of you are probably sitting there thinking, “yeah right. That could have never actually happened.” The world of the Judges seems to more accurately describe the world in which we live. And in a way, you may be right. There’s no evidence that the church was able to keep up such unity for long. The very next verses, in fact, show us that not everyone was so willing to share everything they had. And from our own experience, we know that the church easily gives into humanity’s self-serving impulse. We ourselves have done what is right in our own eyes, without considering the bigger picture of what God is doing and asking us to do.
The church father Basil the Great, writing in the 4th century AD, also knew how far the church could stray from this idyllic picture in Acts. He noted that “each person…abandons the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and arrogates to himself authority in dealing with certain questions, making his own private rules and preferring to exercise leadership in opposition…to being led by the Lord.”
But I think that this Resurrection season gives us another opportunity to pause and consider the possibilities that Christ’s defeat of sin and death might open up for the church. It gives us all a chance to turn toward the true God and King of the universe, to receive the infinite grace that resurrection brings.
We might have strayed far from God’s intention for the church and for us as human beings, but with every step we take, we can align ourselves with the values of Jesus’s kingdom. To follow God above our own selfish desires and personal opinions. And in doing so, we might all have an opportunity to see what we believe to be true.
In one of the passages that is frequently read on this Second Sunday of Easter, from John 20, we hear about Thomas, who was not present with the disciples when Jesus had come among the twelve. He longed to see things for himself, to place his hand in Jesus’s hand and on his side. Thomas longed to experience the grace his friends had received. A week later, he got that opportunity as Jesus came back among them and Thomas cried out, upon seeing and believing, “My Lord and my God!”
The appearance of Jesus in resurrected glory was a sign to Thomas that what had been attested to him was in fact true. That it really wasn’t too good to be true, but it was a truth that would change Thomas’s world.
We’re not likely to see the physical resurrected Christ in our midst, as Thomas did. That’s why Jesus says “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Likewise, our neighbors are not likely to have visionary encounters with the risen Christ while doing their grocery shopping (but, you never know what might happen). Instead, the sign that is likely to inspire belief in others is the same sign we probably received at one point in our lives. The sign that has the potential to change someone’s world is the church, the physical body of Christ, if it truly lives according to the will of God expressed in Jesus Christ.
Infused with the Holy Spirit and the power of the resurrection, we have been given grace to embody the teachings of Jesus Christ so that others may come to see and believe.
So what difference can the resurrection make? Lets see for ourselves in this community of faith as we seek to follow Jesus Christ as our teacher and guide.
Through the Spirit of God, may it be so. Amen.