Dear sisters, brothers, and friends, near and far, greetings to each of you! May the presence of God through the Holy Spirit, who is with us always, be a comfort and an encouragement to each of us!
Are you familiar with the term “mutual aid?” Brethren author Frank Ramirez, in his article Mutual Aid in the Bible and the Early Church, defines it like this: “It is expected that in greater and lesser ways, we take care of each other and put our stuff at each others' disposal when the need is there.”1 This Sunday, I’ll be preaching on a story from Acts 2:41-47 that recalls how the early Christians right after Pentecost practiced a particularly radical form of mutual aid. The Bible says, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). This might be one of the most notable times that mutual aid was practiced in the Bible on a large scale, but mutual aid is something you’ll find on the pages of both the Old and New Testaments.
Mutual aid is also a theme you can see throughout Brethren history. As you know, the first eight Brethren chose to be baptized even though that was illegal in Germany at the time. As a result, in their first few years of existence as a community, they were subject to persecution.2 To help one another survive, the first Brethren shared their money and possessions freely with one another. Alexander Mack, our founder, had some wealth initially, but he shared it so generously that he wasn’t sure where his food would come from for the next day.3 When the Brethren arrived in America, they continued this practice of mutual aid. All Brethren tried to be self-sufficient but when a need arose, the deacons of the church took up a collection to meet the need. Brethren were even known for keeping a guest room in their homes for anyone traveling through the area.4
Brethren soon expanded their practice of mutual aid from a congregational level to the denominational level. In the late 1800’s, Brethren formed the Mutual Aid Association. This organization helped Brethren coordinate their mutual aid on a larger scale. When there was a drought that affected Brethren in the west, Brethren in the east donated funds to help them. In the twentieth century, Brethren looked even further outward and became more aware of global concerns. Brethren mutual aid in the twentieth century is best known for helping to lead the relief effort in Europe after World War II. Organizations like Heifer International and Church World Service have Brethren roots.5
The practice of mutual aid has created a long history of witnessing to the love of Jesus. We see it throughout the Bible. We see it in our church history. We see it on a person to person level. We see it practiced within the church and with others beyond the church. We see it locally and globally. Today we face a health crisis and an economic crisis of historic proportions. I have already begun to see our church spring into action with mutual aid. I have seen mutual aid practiced among members of our church more times than I can count over the past two months! Plus, we are doing a great job of keeping the Blessing Box stocked with food to meet increased need. It warms my heart to see this tradition of radical love still going strong. As the twin crises that the world face progress in the months and years to come, how will the mutual aid we offer so well be expressed in new ways to fit the needs of new times? We’re often quite good at taking care of one another. How will we open our arms ever wider to comfort and care for persons we don’t even know yet?
In each century, Brethren have risen to the challenge and taken Jesus’ call to mutual aid to the next level. Our collective action has shared God’s love with all and made a difference in people’s lives. That sounds like a great vision for the next decade! I can’t wait to dream with you and act with you, For the Glory of God and our Neighbor’s Good!
- Pastor Tim
1. Ramirez, Frank. “Mutual Aid in the Bible and the Early Church.” Brethren Life and Thought 53, no. 4 (Fall 2008): 1–39. http://proxy.earlham.edu:2084/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lsdar&AN=ATLA0001753722&site=ehost-live, 1.
2. Durnbaugh, Donald F. “Mutual Aid in Ministry to God’s World.” Brethren Life and Thought 33, no. 2 (Spr 1988): 87–97.
3. Ramirez, 10-11.
4. Ramirez, 12-13.
5. Durnbaugh, 94-96.
"I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God."
Philippians 1:3-11, NIV
The Apostle Paul was no stranger to physical distancing. Later in his life, after years of preaching the Gospel in person and starting churches, he was imprisoned for two years under house arrest in Rome. Paul could not leave his home for those two years and you might think that his ministry ceased during that time. However, Paul wrote letters upon letters to the churches he helped start around the Mediterranean. He wrote letters that would become books in the New Testament: Philemon, Colossians, Philippians, and Ephesians.
Paul is an encouraging example to us during this season of physical distancing from one another. He was separated from friends and co-workers in the faith and could not be a physical support to them, but his letters could. We are parted from one another, but we can be an encouragement and support to one another through snail mail, e-mail, phone calls, and video calls. We have so many ways to strengthen our social connections, even as we maintain our physical distance. Who can we reach out to in word or call to support and encourage today? Paul modeled connection with the meager resources he had at the time and we have so many more today that can help us maintain social connection.
Being isolated under house arrest is a dreary fate and Paul’s faith in God helped him to be content in each situation. Paul writes in Philippians, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (4:11-13). Circumstances in our lives change, but God remains a constant, and Paul relied on God for comfort and strength in the midst of good times and bad times.
He took strength from Jesus to not only endure his years imprisoned, but to find joy and have reasons to rejoice before God. Paul actually has reason to rejoice and praise God, even under house arrest. He encourages the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (4:4-6). We will not always feel like rejoicing in this season, but we can practice the spiritual discipline of gratitude. Can you find at least three things everyday that you are grateful for? This practice can uplift our spirits in difficult times.
Since Paul was unable to leave his home or to earn any kind of income, the churches and communities he was connected with supported him during this time. Paul gives thanks to the Philippians for they sent him aid “more than once when [he] was in need” (4:16). The Philippians shared in his troubles and sent Paul gifts and supplies through their mutual friend, Epaphroditus. It’s very important that certain populations remain inside and limit their trips, especially those over 60 and the immunocompromised. Yet others, like Epaphroditus, can be a support by helping bring groceries or food to those who aren’t able to venture out themselves. Which group do you find yourself in? Is it best for you to remain inside and receive freely the gifts and support or are you able to bring groceries to those who are in need of them?
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is an encouragement to me during this time of physical distancing. I am uplifted by the fact that even though Paul was physically isolated from his communities, he remained connected with them and looked with hope toward a time when they would be together again in person. May Philippians be an encouragement and a model for us in these times. And like Paul, I thank God every time I remember each of you and I look with hope toward a future when we are together in person again.