Matthew 25:37-40, Acts 2:42-47
In today’s reading we see the beginnings of the first church.
Matt Skinner writes that this passage “describes a community of faith that operates in the power of God’s Spirit. The virtues of justice, worship, and mutuality are not accomplishments of extraordinary folk; they are signs of the Spirit within a community of people who understand themselves as united in purpose and identity–not a dispersed collection of individual churchgoers.”
Working for BNP and for a church is pretty amazing. One of the biggest surprises to me when I started and over the course of the past six months has been how God shows up at Brethren Nutrition Program. It is astounding. Items that we need seem to appear out of thin air, volunteers come through at the last minute with donations of materials and their time. We feel God’s presence in other ways too, in the gratefulness of our guests, in the simple way that things work out day in and day out, even when they shouldn’t. These are, I believe, “signs of the Spirit within this community of volunteers and guests who understand themselves as united in purpose and identity”.
The community described in Acts 2:42-47 consisted of God-fearing Jewish people who had come to Jerusalem after hearing of Jesus’ resurrection. Together, they witnessed the wonder of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, when a wind blew and suddenly people who spoke different languages could understand one another. The first church consisted of people from vastly different places, cultures, and backgrounds who were united in faith.
These people sold their possessions and pooled their resources in order to better care for one another. Isn’t that beautiful?
Do you think that there were forms to be filled out in order to confirm and establish that Sarah really needs that loaf of bread, or that David needs a new shirt? I know some of y’all are sitting there like “Wellll these people were prob illiterate so… no there weren’t any forms because no one could read”. That’s not my point. The point is that this passage illustrates needs being met, no questions asked.
Why then is it so much more comfortable for us to create processes and systems for helping others? Why do we create systems and bureaus for interacting with the needy instead of connecting with each other, and folding everyone in?
Raise your hand if you remember the first time a stranger asked you for money. I do. I was six.
A year later when I was in first grade my family moved to Gaithersburg, Maryland. My mom commuted into DC and would take my brother and I in with her on days that we had off from school so that we could stuff and seal envelopes at her office. The highlight of working in my mom’s office for my brother was always competing with himself for how many envelopes he could label in a set amount of time. For me, it was a trip to the Chipotle of the ‘90s, Baja Fresh (they had BLUE Hi-C in their soda fountain). On our way to DuPont Circle from my mom’s office a man sitting on a stoop asked us for change and my mom ignored him, or maybe didn’t hear him, or more likely was so accustomed to these requests that she didn’t even register it. But at 6 years old I heard him and saw him in full, and I stopped to open my red, heart-shaped purse to give him my dollar bill. My mom quickly came over when she saw what I was doing and gave me a “stranger-danger” lecture as we walked away. I felt like I had done something wrong by helping someone in need.
My mom isn’t a bad person, and she definitely had a strong influence on my path to BNP. A year before this, she had encouraged me to run a penny drive at our church to benefit a children’s charity. She obviously took on a lot of the associated work because I was 5 and mostly remember being annoyed that people had contributed silver coins to our PENNY drive.
These two experiences have stuck with me because they are reminders that we are all taught who to help, and how. Through my Psychology coursework, I was introduced to a slew of psycho-social phenomena that are useful when analyzing how and why we’re taught to help some people, and not others. One theory that’s applicable when thinking about why and how we help or don’t help people in need is in-group/ out-group theory. An ingroup is defined as a social group to which we think we belong, and an outgroup is a social group that you do not think you belong to. The strength of our attachments to our multiple personal “ingroups” varies. For example, my sense of belonging to “women” as a group is much stronger than my sense of belonging to “soup kitchen managers” as a group.
Social scientists have shown that we feel more positively towards people we perceive as members of our ingroup. On the surface, this is another classic example of psychology confirming something we already know to be true: we like people we can relate to, who are like us.
The unfortunate outcome of our tendency to gravitate towards people who are like us, is what it does to how we think of people who are not like us, AKA members of our various outgroups. An outgroup that social scientists have found to be among the most likely to be thought negatively about and discriminated against are people experiencing homelessness.
One study using MRI/ fMRI scans to map people’s brain activity as they were exposed to different pictures of people and things drives home this point. In one picture, a study participant sees a chair. And in the next, they see a picture of someone belonging to their ingroup. In the last picture, they see a picture of someone experiencing homelessness. Participants’ brains’ responses to pictures of people experiencing homelessness are closer to how they perceive a chair than how they perceive a member of their ingroup. Essentially, when we see people experiencing homelessness we process them as furniture instead of as people. This process is referred to by psychologists as “dehumanization” and is the nasty mechanism behind some of humanity’s greatest atrocities, like the Holocaust.
The practical implication of this is that we don’t notice and don’t see people who are members of outgroups. People who are homeless. Our brains override our view of them. In other studies, social scientists have shown that we perceive the pain of people belonging to outgroups as being less severe than our own (which, as an aside, has been used to explain why doctors under prescribe women’s pain meds). Dehumanization causes us to literally not see people in need, just like my mom walking by the man on the stoop.
There’s a big advantage to not seeing the suffering of people who are different from us. It allows us to focus our mental and emotional energy on our ingroup, a pool of people who presumably share more genetic information with us than members of our outgroup do. Positive affect or “feelings” for people who are like us aids in group cohesion, which in turn strengthens familial bonds that support the propagation of our own genetic lines. Beyond that, city and close-quarter living would be unbearable if our brains processed every person we see the same way we process our loved ones. Can you imagine the exhaustion that would ensue if we greeted every person we saw like they were our best friend?
But Jesus DID see each and every person as if they were one of his best friends, his loved ones. He is and was perfect, saw society’s castaways and tended to them with compassion. A life modeled after Christ must include compassion and love for those who are vastly different from us.
My favorite bible quote is found in Matthew 25:37-40 (NIV)
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
The ways in which we come to view others, between “ingroup” and “outgroup”, “stranger” and “friend” are all learned. If the first Christians, through the power of the holy spirit were able to overcome lack of a common language in order to “give to one another” then we have the power to open our hearts wider, to love deeper, to widen our circles to include people we haven’t before. We can break bread with more people, and we can strengthen the bonds that we have and bring more people in.