Sunday 8 April 2018
The Second Sunday of Easter
After journeying through the reflective and penitential season of Lent, after celebrating the joy of resurrection on Easter Morning, we are now in the Season of Easter. Easter isn’t just one Sunday, it lasts for seven weeks, eight Sundays. A week of weeks, it is sometimes called, or the Great Fifty Days of Easter.
During this Easter season, we’re going to be focussing each Sunday on a reading from the Book of Acts. The Acts of the Apostles, the fifth book in the New Testament, is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells about the life of Jesus. Acts, written by the same anonymous author, tells the story of the early church. For seven weeks, we are going to be taking a closer look at readings taken from the first ten chapters of the Book of Acts.
Unfortunately, the lectionary doesn’t give us these readings in order. According the narrative order of the Book of Acts, today’s reading is the fifth of the one’s we’ll be looking at. The order of readings is going to be 5 today, then 3, 4, 6, 7, 1, 2. So we might need to spend a little time each week clearing up just where we are in the book.
Today’s reading, towards the end of chapter 4, happens after Matthias is selected as the new apostle to replace Judas, after the Holy Spirit appears on Pentecost, the birthday of the church, and after Peter and John are imprisoned for healing a disabled man. At this point in the story, the community of believers in Jerusalem has grown from about 50 at the beginning of Acts to 5000. The Holy Spirit has been working through the apostles to vindicate Jesus, to bring healing and hope, and to grow the church. Five thousand people, that sounds like the first mega-church, although they would not have been able to meet all together in one place.
The image that we get here of the early church is a rather controversial one. A Christian community in the first century that was so unified, so committed to Jesus’s message, so devoted to the idea of fellowship that no one owned any private property. A community so dedicated to the needs of each other that the wealthier members willingly sold their property so that the proceeds could be distributed to the poor. A community in which there were no needy people because each person was cared for by the entire community.
That’s some pretty radical stuff. After all, it’s Socialism, isn’t it? It’s Communism. It’s the kind of thing we would expect to find either in an ashram in India or in some armed compound out in the wilderness. Community property. People sell their possessions and give it to a small cadre of party leaders for distribution based on need. That sounds pretty sketchy, and potentially quite dangerous. Depending on who you ask, it sounds downright un-American.
And yet, this is how the author of Luke and Acts describes the early church for us in the passage this morning. “The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, “This is mine!” about any of their possessions, but held everything in common.… There were no needy persons among them. Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales, and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles.”
It’s interesting to note that the early Christians in Jerusalem likely had some economic troubles. Remember that Jesus had recruited a group of disciples in the northern province of Galilee. He asked his followers to leave their jobs behind and follow him. Remember Peter and James and John leaving their nets and their boats to follow Jesus? They left their livelihoods behind. And now many of those disciples had followed Jesus south to Jerusalem, away from their families and their social networks. Now that they had immigrated to Jerusalem, many would not have had any means of support. No jobs, no incomes, and certainly no investment portfolios.
And that makes it even more remarkable that there was no one needy in the early Jerusalem church. A good portion of the members were unemployed and unemployable. And still somehow, they were able to share their possessions so that no one was left wanting.
This is actually the second time that Luke has told us about how the early Christian community shared its resources. Back at the end of Acts 2, Luke writes, “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers…. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them…. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.”
While this might sound fairly radical to us today, we shouldn’t be too surprised by this. It’s the sort of thing that Jesus has been preaching all through the Gospel of Luke. Jesus repeatedly tells his disciples and listeners to sell their possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow him. He even says, “None of you can be my disciple if you don’t give up all your possessions” (Lk 14:13). The early church in Acts is just living out the values that Jesus was preaching during his ministry. This sort of behavior is precisely what Jesus said the Kingdom of God was all about.
Of course, we live in a very different world today. In the ancient world, they believed that the world had limited resources and that those resources had already been distributed; if someone is getting more it must mean that someone else is losing out. Modern economics tells us that the economy can grow, that the pie can be made bigger, that everyone can get more and no one loses out. In the ancient world there were no retirement plans. People rarely lived to an age that retirement was necessary, only a tiny fraction of people had enough resources to stockpile them away, and if someone did survive into old age, it was expected that their children and grandchildren would take care of them. In today’s world, it seems irresponsible not to put away a significant amount of money for retirement. In the ancient world, there really was no middle class. The vast majority of people lived at or near subsistence level, and only a small minority had significant resources stored away. In our world, there are lots of people who have enough money that it has to be managed.
So what are we to make of this story from Acts? Should we be selling our property and giving the money to the needy? Should we be forming a sort of commune together, or an economic collective? Should we be advocating for a state with a strong social security network that meets the basic needs of all it’s citizens? Perhaps. None of those should be out of the realm of possibility. But it is complicated. It is difficult. We live in a very different world.
Acts presents us a model of an ideal Christian community. They have been brought together in a short period of time. Many of them are living away from their homes and without resources. But they band together. Those who have an excess give to those who don’t have enough.
And while that might seem quite radical, it is also quite natural. Christians have a wide variety of political beliefs. Some Christians are libertarians who don’t want the state to be involved in any kind of social security or welfare programs. Some are progressives who would like to see nationalized healthcare and a universal basic income. Most are somewhere in between.
But when we are actually faced with need, especially if it is the need of someone we know, people of all different political stripes often jump right in to help. When we see someone hurting, generally we want to help. And that desire to help comes from God.
And even on a somewhat larger scale, the desire to help those in need transcends political affiliation. Both conservative and liberal churches support the FISH Food Bank. Both liberal and conservative churches support the Emergency Voucher Program. It’s when things are larger, more impersonal, and systemic that we have a harder time working things out. For people we see as family, as friends, as neighbors, it is easier to want to help. For people we see as others, as foreigners, as strangers, it is more difficult. And yet, Jesus calls us to draw ever wider the circle of people we consider family. Jesus calls us to love even our enemies.
But the ideal of the Jerusalem Church in Acts isn’t just about sharing resources with the needy. It’s also about releasing our grip on the things we have. For Jesus and for Luke, money and possessions are not morally neutral. Money and possessions are dangerous. They are in many ways necessary, and there are good uses for money and possessions, but they are dangerous.
Money and possessions can easily become the objects of our faith. They become the thing we look to for security. They become the thing that drives how we make our choices. They become the thing that we work for, the thing that we value, the thing that defines our worth. In short, they become a replacement for God. The preaching of Jesus and the example of the early church warn us to resist the temptation to put money in the place where God should be.
When we remember that God is our God and our things aren’t, when we remember that all people are God’s children, and when we remember that every good thing we have comes from God… that is when we come closest to the ideal vision of the church we see in Acts 4, that is when we release our grip on our things, that is when we put our trust in God and not in our investment portfolios, that is when we experience each person as our neighbor, each person as our sister or brother, even.
It is not an utter mystery. It is a gift of God’s grace. In fact, it says so right in the middle of today’s passage. Act 4:33: “An abundance of grace was at work among them all.” And abundance of grace. That is what what nudges us ever closer to the ideal, that is one thing that everyone shares in common: our reliance on the great abundance of God’s grace. Thanks be to God.