The rabbis tell a story about a tightrope walker who appeared in a little town and went about inviting everyone to come and see his act. The town had little to do in the way of entertainment, so everyone readily gathered near the two big trees he'd chosen for his performance.
He'd climbed to a dizzying height and attached a rope between the two trees. When the people saw how high he planned to go they were amazed. But when he said, "Do you all believe that I can make it across the rope?," the crowd, eager to see the performance, shouted as one, "Yes," and they all applauded loudly.
The tightrope walker then grabbed a nearby wheelbarrow and with the same excitement asked the crowd, "And who will let me push them across in this wheelbarrow?"
And all you could hear were the crickets.
We often hear people talking these days about the difference between spirituality and religion. The difference is between those who believed the tightrope walker could cross the rope and those who climbed into the wheelbarrow, which in this story and perhaps in many churches, are none at all.
Our passages today tell of a Jesus who practiced a spiritual path that he commends to us as a true and life-giving path. It's a path oriented to unending and depthless abundance and overflowing, eternal life, all flowing from the hand of the one God. It is one that is based on the expectation that all will be filled and satisfied and that true power is not in dominant control of the many by the few but in the liberating community of all for God and for each other.
It is above all a practice that Jesus offers. It is this practice that he described as the gate to eternal life, and he demonstrated by refusing to bow to Herod or Caiaphas or Caesar, by joyfully serving as a conduit of the awe-inspiring power of God to heal and forgive, by accepting the legal execution by torture that comes to all who buck the system, trusting in God to rescue and vindicate him, which God did by raising Jesus from the dead.
So assenting to a list of propositions, a bunch of doctrine, does nothing at all for any of us if it doesn't inform a practice. And I'm not talking about good deeds or adhering to a bunch of values, because in most cases systems of doctrinal belief are simply twisted around by the Caesars and the Caiaphases and the Herods of our time to bless and maintain the status quo. In fact, most people rightly sense that religion as we know it generally exists to prop up the dominant culture. Lots of people see going to church as submitting to the morals and rules of society, however this or that church defines those rules. But I don't think this is what being a disciple of Christ is about at all.
It is one thing to believe that God is going to make everything all right. It's another thing to be a part of what God is making right. It's one thing to wait passively for God to miraculously fix things. It's another to become God's instrument to do so. It's one thing to admire Jesus for forgiving those who colluded in his trial and execution, it's another to take up one's own cross in protest against the selfishness and violence of the world's false shepherds. It's one thing to stand in awe of God's generosity, it's another to be authentically generous oneself. It's one thing to hope for miracles, it's another to do them. It's one thing to pray for God's help, it's another to pray to help God.
Acts gives us a snapshot of the explosion that was the early church, the amazing new community that blossomed out of the resurrection of Jesus. Luke, who wrote Acts as a kind of sequel to his gospel, tells us about how people were living, not about what they believed. He talks about a community, koinonia, not just a potluck social club, but a communion that worships and studies in one accord. He talks about radical generosity, those who are wealthy voluntarily liquidating their resources and giving it to the church to redistribute. He talks about ongoing wonders done by the leaders of the community.
Acts and other sources from the period tell us that many early Christians called their movement "the Way." It was certainly not only about right thinking or believing or assenting to a list of impossible truths. It was a deeply communal practice of prayer and study and giving and serving that opened the way for the power of God to flow endlessly into the world. It was a way for people to enter the realm of God and a way for God to enter the realm of the world.
And Jesus tells us something about the differences between himself as the true shepherd and the false shepherds, the lords or the realm of the world. For one thing, the lords of the world are duplicitous. They don't come at you head-on, out in the open, above-board, but always sideways, with trickery, confusion, and spin.
Jesus tells us that there is a difference between where he leads and where the false shepherds lead. Invariably the false shepherds, the lords of the universe as some media pundits call them, want something from us, and almost always it will ultimately deplete us and enrich them, for their way is oriented to the fear of scarcity and death. They therefore chase wealth and control others with violence. Jesus, the true shepherd, on the other hand, is oriented toward faith in abundance and life. His way enriches us, but does not thereby deplete him. His way also calls forth our obedience with love and not with a club. Most of all, his way is blessed and accompanied at every step by the presence of God.
So it's one thing to stand on the sidelines and cheer God on. It's another to get on the playing field and get into God's team. It's one thing to believe that the tightrope guy will get across. It's another thing to follow him.