In 2014 Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian and journalist, published a book called Utopia for Realists. In it, he makes a surprisingly convincing case that, despite what we might currently believe about the state of the world, life is getting better for the overwhelming majority of the world’s citizens.
He carefully documents how human beings today are, on the whole, far better fed, better educated, richer, cleaner and healthier than we were even two hundred years ago. And how there is less conflict today, and how we have more capacity to solve large-scale crises as they arise.
Perhaps because Mr. Bregman offered a glimpse of light under what often feels like gloomy skies, the book quickly became an international bestseller. Humans may be better fed today that we were not so long ago, but it seems that we are always hungry for a word of hope.
I mention this because, just three years after the book’s initial publication, it feels like we are again in a time when we could use another glimpse of light, when another word of bright hope would be a welcome reprieve from the steady torrent of distressing news we read about in the newspaper (stories I won’t recount here in this space).
Toward that end, I think it’s helpful to remember that we are not the first people to feel distressed by the circumstances in which we find ourselves. After Jesus took his leave from his disciples, we know that, as a group, they were so frightened by the prospect of facing life without their remarkable leader that they spent their days hiding in an upper room behind locked doors.
You can’t blame them, really. They were but a small group whose members Jesus had charged to go into all the world and teach his way of love and peace in places they’d never been before, in cultures they didn’t understand, to people who didn’t even share their language, let alone their values.
It must have felt like an overwhelming challenge. Who wouldn’t want to stay hidden away under those circumstances?
We also know that on Pentecost, something happened that changed all that, something that enabled this timid group of fledgling disciples to go out into the world and, against all odds, establish communities of love and faith — little outposts of the Realm of God — across the Mediterranean world.
How did they do this? What kept them going when things got hard — when their new leaders were jailed, for example? Or when the urgings of the Spirit to welcome strangers, to expand their tent, to expand their understanding of what God’s love means and what it looks like in practice, were met with resistance, sometimes from within the membership of these very communities?
I believe these are important questions. I also believe that looking at them afresh could offer us insights not only into how to be our own vibrant and viable community of love and faith in these challenging times, but how the process of rising to meet these challenges might make more of us.
Which is why I am announcing here my summer sermon series, Utopia for Realists: Lessons from God’s People Then, for God’s People Now.
We’ll anchor the series in stories from the book of Acts, and in passages from the epistles to the early churches. We’ll look at the words of hope that anchored and inspired these early communities; the ways they found joy in one another’s company; the ways they worked out their conflicts and differences, and, of course, the ways they rose to meet the challenges and opportunities of their time.
Utopia for realists. Or, as I like to call it, the Kingdom of God.