by Kristin Fontaine
The words of the Bible frequently surprise me. I have read it through, cover-to-cover more than once, have had passages read to me in services, and have had Bible stories told to me since I was a child.
Still, whenever I give my full attention to a passage or an assigned reading, something usually jumps out at me as if I am seeing it for the first time.
In the readings for Monday, Proper 17 we have Acts 11:19-30
A lot of information is packed into these few verses. It was an exciting time for the newly forming faith. What caught my attention, this time, was this:
…and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.” At that time prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them named Agabus stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine over all the world; and this took place during the reign of Claudius. The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea; this they did, sending it to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
Here we have the juxtaposition of this new religion getting a name with a planned relief action. The ‘believers’ have a name as a group and can identify with other groups of believers across a wide geographic range. The Antioch Christians act on the prophecy of famine by making a plan to provide relief to their fellows in Judea. (Why Judea when the famine was predicted to be worldwide, I don’t know.)
As is the way with many Bible stories, we don’t find out the results of the decision to send aid. That was apparently not the point of the story. Instead, I take from it the idea that built into the bones of the Christian faith is the impulse to act when a crisis arises.
That impulse has stayed with the Church even as it has splintered into different denominations with different ideas about how to be the Church in the World. The mainline* denominations differ about a fair number of things, but not in the desire to help a hurting world.
In the Episcopal Church, we have everything from Episcopal Relief and Development to hyper-local programs that try to help with everything from homelessness to child hunger, from supporting Laundry Love ministries to regular in-gatherings of The United Thank Offering
The story of Christians as a people with an impulse to give, to reach out, and to help stretches back to the beginning of our formation as a faith and we have learned a lot about how to give in a way that is actually helpful to the recipients over the past 2000 years. One of the best things I think we have learned (and are continuing to learn) from our impulse to give, is the importance of listening to those in need and not just swooping in to try to ‘save’ them (either spiritually or physically) in the way that seems right to us. We can learn so much more about others, ourselves, and most importantly who God calls us to be, through the discipline of listening before we leap to action.
Giving is embedded in the warp and weft of our faith. The desire to give encourages us to look outside of ourselves and outside of our own communities. It gives us the chance for a rich connection to others and to our own spiritual practice; in fact, giving gives us so much more than we can imagine when we are open to it.
I know that sometimes talk of giving can feel like I’m being asked to give even more than I already do, or that I’m not doing enough. But this passage in Acts addresses my concern by saying: “The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief…”
It doesn’t say all must give the same amount, but that each should give based on their ability to do so. Some might have much to give and some very little at the time of this particular action, but none are expected to give beyond what they are able. That to is embedded in the way we give.
So celebrate what you can give and celebrate the generous impulse of the church that stretches back in time to the very foundation of the word ‘Christian’.
*I’m speaking from personal experince, of which most of mine is with the Catholic, Lutherian, and Episcopalian branches of the faith so can’t speak to every branch of Christianity.
All bible quotes are from either the NRSV or RSV text at Bible Gateway
Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.