A Picture of Community
Gazing at paintings on a wall, scanning book covers on a shelf, scrolling through tv shows and movies, the apocalyptic genre of storytelling is more often than not portrayed with a common thread. Desolation and corruption reign, the gap between the wealthy and impoverished is extreme, life is a commodity, violence is the currency, and survival is all you can hope for. So much of this genre, so much of our perception of the apocalyptic is tinted with struggle and suffering and pitting one against the other. And at times, it seems scripture depicts a similar prospect.
In many of our prophetic texts, we read about sorrow and darkness and disunity being a precursor to God’s ultimate salvation of the world. Signs of destruction and despair infiltrate our vision of what is to come, and it is easy to let terror replace hope. In the book of Acts, as Peter addresses the crowd after Christ’s ascension and the Spirit’s pouring out, he mentions one of these apocalyptic prophecies from the book of Joel — alluding to what signs will indicate the ushering in of the Kin-dom of God. But as Act 2 continues on, Peter’s words give way to a scene that seemingly suggests an alternative to the doom and gloom.
As we read Act 2:43-47, I invite us to consider the question: what does salvation look like?
What does salvation look like?
- Salvation looks like taking care of each other
- Communion in community
- Salvation as collective, not individualistic
Set in an undisclosed time in the future of a fictional world, Becky Chambers’ novella, A Psalm for the Wild Built, was a Hugo Award winner in 2022 — the highest literary award offered to works of science fiction. The story follows the life of a humble, non-binary tea monk named Dex, who travels from village to village with their solar powered tea cart/camper offering a cup and a listening ear for all who sit down at their pop-up table. As we follow along the road with Dex, we get glimpses of the history that has led them and all of humanity to where they are in the narrative’s present day time.
Centuries ago when life was ruled by industrialization and the depletion of natural resources, society heavily relied upon advanced robotics for labor. That is, until these robots started to become self aware. In gaining their sentience, these robots all at once began laying down their tools and wandered into the forests never to be seen again. As a response to the ethical dilemma of forcing beings to work for them against their now perceived will, humanity established a pact: they will never ask a sentient machine to do anything for them again. With these metallic beings now scattered to the woods, humanity had to drastically shift its ways of life — leading to the dismantling of its reliance upon industrialization and to the formation of a society built upon the principle of harmonious living with the land and with one another.
Fast forward a couple centuries to Dex and their tea cart, we see how this shift to living more sustainably and relationally plays out. Humanity exists in perpetual awareness of environmental conservation; communities take care of one another; and individuals are able to meet their needs, sharing resources in common and holding one another accountable with empathy and a collective spirit. In this story, life is not without its struggles, of course, but an unyielding commitment to compassion and mindful living seems to permeate all aspects of society. It is a prospect nothing short of beautiful. There’s much more to the story, including what transpires after Dex encounters one of these robots in the woods hundreds of years after they disappeared, but I’ll leave the rest of the details to your reading pleasure — and it is a pleasure to read, a “breath of fresh air” as one critic describes it. I’d have to agree.
In a genre dominated by wasteland scapes, tyrannical power play, and survivor of the fittest mentalities, A Psalm for the Wild Built depicts a post-apocalyptic future of hope rather than despair — a potential of what could be if only we learn to live with one another, not at the expense of one another, and all are welcome to share in community.
Post-Pentecost, Peter addresses the gathered crowd with a theological exposition — attesting to God’s saving grace through Jesus, who fulfilled the prophesies of old. In the passages before our scripture for today, after assuring the crowd that those gathered in the upper room were not in fact drunk but filled with the Spirit, Peter references a Jewish prophetic text. Quoting a passage from the book of Joel, Peter begins reciting a seemingly dismal prophesy: “I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:19-22). This description seems more in line with what we would consider the apocalyptic genre — blood and smoke and darkness, a world drenched in suffering and seemingly devoid of hope. Peter continues on with his apologetics and invites an enthralled crowd to join in God’s saving work, which leads us to our scripture today.
In Act 2:43, we read, “Awe came upon everyone because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.” This phrase, “many wonders and signs,” is a direct reference to this prophesy in the book of Joel that Peter alludes to earlier in Acts that I just mentioned — a prophecy of what is to come in God’s saving work. The author is trying to connect what Joel prophesied would happen with what is currently happening — implying that the wonders and signs being done by the apostles are a prophetic fulfillment of the signs that were foretold. But rather than blood, smoke, and darkness, we get a very different picture.
The texts reads that all who believed were together, sharing common resources, tending to each other’s needs, filling their bellies with food and their hearts with joy and gratitude. No one is above the reality of need and no one is below the ability to give as goodwill prevails and salvation is aplenty. Where we expect scarcity, there is abundance. Where we expect suffering, there is joy. Where we expect survival, there is thriving. Where we expect despair, there is hope. In the midst of grief and confusion and anxiety, the author of the book of Acts provides a glimpse of the Kin-dom of God in the life of this community in this lifetime, depicting salvation through the lens of welcome and sufficiency and harmony. So often that is not how salvation is portrayed, though.
So often salvation is approached like a competition of who wins and who loses, who gets in and who is left out. We treat God’s saving work like team selection in gym class dodgeball — I pick you and you, not you or you. And we like to think that Christ is on our team when, in actuality, Christ is not even playing the game but, rather, holding the hand of the last to be picked, saying, “hey, let’s go eat.” We think of salvation in competing terms, projecting an apocalyptic survivor of the fittest mentality over who is worthy and who is not. But nowhere in scripture do we read that we are called to be gatekeepers. To be judge and jury has never been part of God’s calling on our lives. What we are called to do is live in a way that participates in God’s saving work in the world, which, according to Acts, looks a heck of a lot like taking care of one another, like community not condemnation. It looks like living in a way where salvation is not some designation for which side of a gate we’ll be on when we die but, rather, an indication of the extent to which we leave the gate open in this life — or, better yet, dismantle our gates of separation and superiority all together.
How we know the Kin-dom of God is at hand and salvation is at work is not from signs of blood and smoke and darkness, but through signs of togetherness, accessibility, and abundance. What if the true sign, the true wonder, is not some supernatural show of miraculous might, but rather the simple miracle of mutual kindness? What if salvation is less about where we go when we die and more about moving ever towards a life that could be while we are still living, less about individualistic belief and more about collective, communal action? What if being saved means assuming our role in tending to what is as we hope for what will be, aligning our will with the will of a loving God which invites what will be to become a reality now — a reality of more than enough, of open invitation, of the miraculous act of compassionate companionship.
Let us take this example in Acts to heart. In so doing, may we be saved from the illusion that God’s love is limited, that God’s welcome is selective, and that God’s grace is anything less than overwhelmingly abundant — knowing that salvation is not mere words spoken but an invitation into participation in God’s saving work in the world. May we pay attention to the true sign for what is to come, which is and has always been a picture of community.