Easter is not just a day–it’s a season. (Candy manufacturers should totally take advantage of this and continue to sell Cadbury eggs.) And for the season of Easter we’ll be studying Acts at Bethany. Acts tells the story of what happened next. Jesus was raised; then what?
We started this week with a passage from Acts 4:32-35 that describes the early Christians this way:Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
I didn’t use this poem by Wendell Berry in worship on Sunday, but it was in the back of my mind all week. As usual, the poet says it better than the preacher. Audio from Sunday is after the poem, and text is after the jump.
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
This passage kind of seems like a non sequitur after last week. Jesus is risen! And now we’re talking about private property?
We’re reading this today because it’s one of the lectionary passages. The lectionary is a three year schedule of readings for worship. It’s used by Christians all over the world. It covers a lot of the Bible and tells the key stories of our faith. We often, but not always, use the lectionary passages here at Bethany.
We’re going to follow the lectionary and be reading from the books of Acts for the next five weeks. The book of Acts is really the gospel of Luke, part two. It’s the same author, and tells what happens next—after Jesus.
Each of the gospels tells us, in their own way, Jesus lived, died, and was raised. The end.
Not many of us say this out loud, but it’s understandable to get the end and go, so what? What difference does it make? Jesus was raised. So?
The book of Acts tells the so what. It’s the story of folks who lived through it all, and then had to look at each other and go, huh, that was wild. What do we do now?
If the gospels are the story of the resurrection, the book of Acts is the story of resurrection people—people shaped by the resurrection of Jesus.
Today we jump into the story without a lot of context. Luke is describing the early community of resurrection people, the first Christians: “The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions.”
This sounds oddly like instructions for how to run a commune, or like political theory—communism, or socialism, or something. When we read it in Bible study this week, the first response was, wow, that sounds like Lenin or Trotsky.
Let’s be clear. It’s not. This passage is not describing how an entire society should be ordered. There are parts of the Bible, primarily Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and the prophets, that do describe how a society should allocate goods, how the government should behave, what just laws and economics look like on a macro scale. But that’s not what we have here.
This, instead, is about a small group of people deciding how they would live in the midst of a much bigger culture. These first resurrection people were like an outpost of a new kingdom in the midst of the old. They were aliens in a strange land.
Their lives had been changed by what happened with Jesus. And now, they had to figure out how to live in the midst of a lot of people who weren’t on the same page.
Acts is the story of people who are no longer defined primarily by national identity, or gender, or race, or class, or language, or tribe, or eating habits, or anything else, but by the resurrection of Jesus.
And what does that look like? When their lives are defined by resurrection?
First of all: proclamation and practice are inextricably linked.
The resurrection of Jesus didn’t just change Sunday mornings, but also Monday afternoons, and Wednesday lunches and Friday nights.
It didn’t just change how they pray and what they believe, but also what they own, how they relate to stuff, how they talk to others.
The first verse of our passage tells us they were of one heart and soul. One heart and soul. All of them. Some translations say one heart and mind. At this point there were probably about five thousand or so Jesus followers. They were of one mind—all of them.
Can you imagine? Have you ever tried to be of one mind with even one other person?
And then we step back, take the long view, and consider all the Christians of all time, or even just all the Christians alive today: one heart and soul? Hardly.
But this is our calling. To be of one heart and soul with each other—with the people in this room, with Christians who make us mad enough to spit, with our neighbors and our enemies—one heart and soul. This is, at its core, a call to peace as a way of life.
To be of one heart with someone else means when they weep, we weep. When they rejoice, we rejoice. It means what happens to you is never really separate from what happens to me. If we are of one heart and soul with each other, then when you are hungry, I am hungry. When you are mocked, or ignored, or hated, I am mocked, and ignored, and hated. When bombs fall on you, my heart breaks. When your world falls apart, my soul aches.
This kind of compassion, of feeling-with, is the cornerstone of peace. It is the essence of love—taking someone outside of ourselves as seriously as we take ourselves. And it is, according to Acts, an essential mark of resurrection people. We are people of peace, deeply, essentially we are to be peacemakers—in our homes, our work places, our friendships, our world.
But that’s not all. There’s also this bit about everything they owned was in common. There was not a needy person among them.
This is the really hard part to imagine, isn’t it?
It would be tempting to try to water this down, if it didn’t say, right there, no one claimed private ownership of any possessions.
That’s serious. That’s even harder to believe than that they were of one heart and mind. No one claimed private ownership.
Did this really happen? Or is this just an ideal that no one lived up to?
It’s a fair question. The testimony from the rest of the New Testament is mixed. Probably the most honest response is that early Christians tried to live this way.
Our passage from today is followed immediately by two stories, one of someone who sold everything he owned and shared it—just like the passage says, and one of a couple who sold all that they owned and shared, well, most of it. Not quite all.
The rest of the New Testament tells us that there was clearly a serious commitment by early Christians to find a new way of relating to resources and property—a way in which there was plenty for all. And it’s clear that this was just as hard for them as it is for us today.
What does resurrection look like? It looks like selling land and sharing the proceeds. It looks like a great big feast with enough food. It looks like plenty for all and no one hungry.
This, like the peacemaking, can seem so big, so impossible, that it’s tempting to throw our hands up and give up. But, like those first disciples, we do what we can, where we are, with what we have.
For resurrection people, trust in the risen Lord shapes not just our hearts, but also our bank balance and our calendar. How we allocate our money and our time, our resources, is not value neutral, but is a fundamental part of our faith.
Here in this resurrection community, some give a little money after each meal in the cents a meal cups, and most pledge or give regularly according to our means. Both of these are spiritual practices of gratitude. We practice saying, I don’t need this, you go ahead. We talk about and pray about our habits of consumption, our practices of using resources, and the complexity of our lives. We take meals to people who are sick or in crisis, and work to see that our neighbors don’t go hungry, and give our time to clean up after shared meals together.
Here in this post-industrial, late capitalist world, being a little outpost of the kingdom means we question those habits of mind that say, what’s mine is mine and I earned it and I can do what I want with it. We notice when we find ourselves believing the gospel of more is better. In our corner of the world, in our daily practice of resurrection, we seek another way.
What does resurrection look like? It looks like sharing, like an ethic of abundance and just distribution of resources.
We will fall short on all of this. The first disciples did.
That’s why I’m exceedingly grateful that verse 33 is in the middle of this passage. “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.”
When Jesus was raised, God effectively declared a new world order, a new kingdom, a new life with plenty for all and life, real life, free life, here and now for all of us.
That’s the good news that beats at the heart of it all. These folks in Acts weren’t living this way because it’s nice, or good, or philosophically right.
They lived this way because in Jesus, in Jesus’ defeat of all that binds and destroys human life, they encountered something too amazing to keep to themselves, news too good not to share, love too big to keep inside.
That’s the power at work in them. And it’s the power at work in us, today, as we share what we have, as we try to live in peace with each other, as we try in small ways and large to give testimony to the resurrection.
And, here’s the best news of the day—the end of verse 33, great grace was upon them all.
They fell short. Those early resurrection people. They were not perfect. This story in Acts that we’ll be living with the next five weeks is not the story of a golden age, or of archetypal heroic disciples.
Far from it.
Instead, it’s the story of people like us—who have found our hearts strangely warmed, who have been embraced by a love we cannot comprehend, who have heard our names called and discovered that we are known and loved. It’s the story of people like us who have met a man named Jesus, who have been drawn into this community called the Body of Christ, and who are sorting out, day by day, hour by hour, how to live out this good news, how to be peacemakers and witnesses to abundance, how to testify to the resurrection.
Like those first disciples, no matter what else happens, we can count on the grace of God to cover us, to be upon us, to sustain us. On those days when we can’t find a kind word for anyone, during those weeks when we struggle to see the beauty in God’s world, in those times when we’re discouraged and without hope, in all of that, God’s grace rains down, taking our human-ness, our brokenness, our not enough and not good enough, and making it into a feast fit for a king.
This, friends, at last, is the power of the resurrection in our world. The love at the center of it all says that life, not death, gets the last word, that brokenness is not an insurmountable obstacle on the road to wholeness, that life, true life, real life, full life is available here, now, in this time and this place, for all. The stone is rolled away! Jesus is risen! Thanks be to God!by Sarah W. Wiles April 15, 2012 Bethany Presbyterian Church Tacoma, WA