2nd Sunday of Easter Acts 4:32-35 April 8, 2018
Let us pray: God of all who doubt and believe, by the gift of your Spirit enable us to hear with our ears, to see with our eyes, and to touch with our hands your Word of life—Jesus Christ—our Lord and our God. Amen
In this Sunday’s reading from the Book of Acts, the author, Luke, tells about the early days of the Christian church.
There are times when I read this text and I can hear the immortal voices of Edith and Archie Bunker singing, “Those were the days” in the background of my mind. Those were the day…the bygone days of yesterday where everything was simple, real, authentic and supposedly better. Those were the days, the early days, where the church was really the church. And then another voice in the back of my mind provides a reality check and sarcastically says, “Hogwash!”
I suspect every generation of the faithful has looked at what is going on within the church as we know it today and gets nostalgic for what my father used to call, “The Golden Age” of whatever it was he was reflecting upon. It really is tempting to lament the current state of affairs: declining worship attendance, congregations with their hair on fire and fighting and splitting over challenging social statements, churches of every stripe pinching pennies and cutting and streamlining the budget and an environment where congregational life is no longer considered a priority as it competes with everything under the sun.
Yes, one could lament, but it would be an exercise in futility. So with that thought in mind, let’s try something different, let’s take a closer look at the life of the early church in Acts and see what we might learn and what we might apply to life here and now.
Today’s reading starts out with a practice that has been misused and misunderstood when it talks about those early Christians selling all their possessions and sharing everything in common. I suspect some might immediately jump to the conclusion that the early church was advocating what we now assume is communism. I would suggest that this practice had nothing in common with the political, but rather grounded in the relational, it was what we would call communal.
Yes, people were known to sell possessions and contribute it to the community so that no one would go without. Why would they do this? The easy answer is because they loved each other, and so they took care of each other. Let’s be honest, love and compassion do not make up the foundation of any political theory: whether it is communism or socialism or even democracy.
The other factor to consider is that these folks all grew up in a society where the family was the social unit on which they could rely when they experienced tough times. For some, the decision to follow Christ meant that they could no longer rely on the support of their family. The church became their new family. As a result, the needs of everyone in the community were met, no one went hungry, no one was left behind to fall between the cracks. If there was a need, it was addressed.
It should also be noted that they trusted one another which enabled them to give as their hearts directed them so there would be enough for all. They truly believed if God can raise the dead, then surely God will provide their every need because they trusted that God was a God of hopeful abundance. In short, this was not a political endeavor; this was a Christian communal endeavor.
On top of all that, no one was required to do this. No one was shamed into selling all they had. It was all voluntary, it was a gesture of kindness toward others in the community, it was a gracious act to care for others, it was done out of gratitude and love. Love, trust, care and gratitude were the foundations of the early Christian community.
The result of these characteristics inspires Luke to paint a picture of the early church is of a church that was very much alive. The early Christians met together, ate together, studied together, sang together, rejoiced together and altogether had a great time. They were an active church, a celebrating church, and church that believed greatly in fellowship, service and outreach. No wonder they experienced such voluntary generosity and growth.
One of the lessons I have learned from my years of parish ministry is that people are by nature generous, despite the negative reports from folks who study the faltering giving habits of Americans. I believe that with all my heart and soul. I believe God has hard-wired each of us to give, to be in relationships, and to seek meaning and purpose through the sacred and secular activities of each day. In other words, stewardship is already written into our discipleship DNA, yet we allow cultural mutations to interfere with this natural design. We have drunk the Kool-Aid that teaches us to hoard, hunker down, to cling tightly to our earthly treasures to the point of idolatry.The early Christians however were unabashed in this enthusiastic response as resurrected people. The world marked the Christian community as decidedly different when it came to matters of compassion and mercy. In a culture of honor, shame, and patronage, the early Christians were an odd bunch. We would do well the rekindle that spirit of oddness.The early Christians did not follow the worldly rules of empire and culture but trusted that God’s abundance would provide for all of them.
Years ago I had the opportunity to live in a couple intentional communities. The first was back in the early 80’s after college when I worked at Koinonia, one of our Lutheran camp and retreat centers out in New York. My primary responsibility at Koinonia consisted of teaching environmental and outdoor education as well as being involved in the summer camp program. Our lifestyle was simple, it was communal, we all participated in the many and varied chores. In addition to the classes I taught I helped in the kitchen, I participated in the housekeeping, I milked goats, I split wood, tapped maple trees and made maple syrup and so much more. It was wonderful and it was hard—all at the same time. It was hard because it also meant living side by side with a very random group of folks and sometimes we stepped on each other’s toes. We came from varied backgrounds and cultural experiences. Sometimes we got on each other’s nerves and sometimes we not as gracious as we might strive to be. And yet, we still gathered for worship and prayer each day. Together we drew our focus back to Jesus, our resurrected Lord as this was the binder that held us together as a community.
The second occasion was later in the 80’s when I was a seminarian and I was studying in Washington DC and I lived at a Catholic seminary for the Order of St. Paul, the Paulists. This too was a wonderful experience. Together we studied, ate, worshipped and enjoyed each other’s company. I learned a great deal, the lesson that left the biggest impact on me was their understanding of Christian hospitality. As one of the two Lutherans living with the Paulists I knew that I was welcomed, I knew that we were brothers, followers of Jesus and no theological difference would separate us from that common faith.
Living in community has taught me much and has helped me appreciate the sentiments found in today’s readings. As I read today’s I see two things going on that we would all do well to absorb.
The first is the communal agreement that everyone is equal, and that equality is understood, not in a theoretical “all are endowed by their creator” sense; but as a moral obligation to the other. The emphasis on mutual love, respect and trust are all wrapped up in a spiritual foundation of equality and grace.
Secondly, there is a convincing witness of the resurrection that inspires graciousness. It’s not enough to simply assent to the ideal that “Jesus is risen.” Lots of people will say they believe in the resurrection, but they don’t care about anyone but themselves. Perhaps not the kind of witness Jesus had in mind for his followers? Or, to steal the sentiment found in a Facebook meme: “Act in such a manner that you are living proof of a loving God.” Or, better yet, recalling the old camp song, “They will know we are Christians by our love…”
So if all this talk of selling your possessions cause you to chaff and sweat, I can say, “Relax.” Besides, it became apparent in the following chapters that this practice did not last long after a couple falsely claimed to have sold some property and had given it all to the community when in fact they lied and kept half of it for themselves. Today’s reading is not meant to be a blueprint for the perfect church or even an instruction manual for putting it together. The church in Acts was as flawed, as difficult as any community we are part of.
That being said, what do we do with today’s reading? Do we lament our inability to live as this early community did? Do we use this to excuse ourselves from the call to serve our neighbor? Do we dwell in guilt that we have more than enough while others lack the basics? Do we continue to tightly cling to our resources: our time, talents and treasures? Do we ignore the plight of others because there is nothing more we can do? Besides, didn’t Jesus say that the poor will always be with us?
No, the good news of Jesus and the resurrection calls us to imagine what it would be like for us to live in such a community where equality is a reality and not just a quaint bygone notion. A community where red and yellow, black and white are truly precious in the sight of God and one another. Where there are no “haves” and “have nots”.
The good news calls us to wonder what it might look and feel like to be a part of a community where everyone looks out for one another, where no one is lacking, where the working poor need not fret over the lack of trickle in the trickle-down theory of economics.
The good news calls us to wonder what our lives might be like were we to take our faith community seriously, where it is a priority, as an opportunity to gather in fellowship, to share meals, to pray and study and grow in faith while supporting one another.
In today’s gospel reading from John we hear Jesus say to his disciples three times, “Peace be with you.” Three times Jesus blesses them with the Hebrew word “Shalom”, a word that implies a harmonious relationship between God and neighbor. Today’s readings invite us to ponder anew what the Almighty might do when we allow God Spirit to help us experience this spirit of “shalom” --where there is a foundation of trust between me and you, you and your neighbor and each of us with God our Father and Jesus our Lord and Savior.
Let us pray…Breath on this place, O Lord by the power of your Holy Spirit, to open our minds, unlock our hearts, and enliven our faith so that we may welcome the risen one among us who offers a Shalom the world can never provide. Amen
Pastor Stephen Blenkush
Zion Lutheran Church
Milaca MN 56353
Love like Jesus!