April 8, 2018
The New Testament is mostly letters – letters from Paul to various churches, letters from Peter, and from James, Jude, and John. It’s mostly letters, but not entirely letters. There’s the Revelation of John at the end of the New Testament, and the four gospels at the beginning. And sandwiched in between the gospels and the letters there’s a book called The Acts of the Apostles, or simply, “Acts.” Some Bible scholars like to call it “Second Luke” because it continues the story of Luke’s gospel beyond the resurrection of Jesus. So it’s appropriate that the assigned readings for the season of Eastertide include passages from Acts, or “Second Luke.” Because, as we learned last week, the story isn’t over when Jesus rises from death to life. It’s just beginning. The story of the early church is laid out in Acts, but it isn’t necessarily a prescription for “how to do church.” We can learn a lot about being the church from this book, but rather than focus on the method first century Christianity followed, Acts points us toward the goal of those early Christians – spreading the news of Jesus Christ into every corner of the world. And Acts describes over and over again how everything the early church did was “motivated and empowered by the Holy Spirit. This was no mere human movement.”1
So let me set the scene for you. Luke has already described Christ’s ascension into heaven and the day of Pentecost. Peter preaches his first sermon, and Luke reports, “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41). Luke goes on to describe how the new community of believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (2:42). They met together in the Temple courts every day and shared what they had with one another. They ate in each other’s homes. The community grew.
One day, as Peter and John are entering the Beautiful Gate on the east side of the Temple, they heal a lame beggar, and they announce that the man has been healed, not through their own power, but through the power of the risen Christ. More people accept the good news, and the number of believers grows to more than 5000. Peter and John are arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, or Council, to answer for making such a scene.
Again, they are filled with the Holy Spirit and preach about Jesus, the risen Christ. The Council doesn’t know what to do with them, so they warn Peter and John to stop stirring up the people by preaching in Jesus’ name. But Peter and John say, “we cannot help talking about what we have seen and heard.” When they are released, they go tell the others what has happened, and they pray for boldness. Luke writes, “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (v. 31). And that brings us to the reading for this second Sunday of Easter, from the book of Acts.
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. – Acts 4:12-19
What amazing unity this early group of believers displayed! Keep in mind that they had come from every corner of the known world, not just Jerusalem, so there were many cultures represented in this group. And they came from every economic and social layer in society. Rich and poor, slave and free, men and women – they were all gathered with one purpose, “of one heart and soul.”
The result of this unified spirit was an outpouring of generosity toward one another. This wasn’t communism, as some have suggested. For one thing, this kind of sharing was completely voluntary. And private property was surrendered only as it was needed for a particular situation. Also, giving up personal property was not a requirement for membership In this group of believers. The early church shared their possessions and property because of “the unity brought by the Holy Spirit working in and through the believers’ lives.”2
In essence, these believers were living out the year of Jubilee described in Deuteronomy 15. They had found shalom. Grace was evident in the way the members cared for one another. The power of the Holy Spirit was not only evident in the generosity believers showed to one another, it was evident in the way they spoke about Jesus. Their testimony was effective for two reasons: yes, they were empowered by the Holy Spirit to speak, but also, the story they told was a personal one. They had seen the resurrected Christ with their own eyes. They could testify to their personal experience of the resurrection, and the Holy Spirit turned that personal anecdote into a powerful message.
“And great grace was upon them all.” Whenever personal piety, or holiness, is reflected in social justice, grace shows up. Whenever love for God is demonstrated in love for neighbor, grace shows up. When what we say we believe aligns with what we actually do, grace shows up. Whenever the Holy Spirit’s power flows into and through us, great grace washes over us. So whenever a need arose in this growing community of believers, someone would go sell something and bring the proceeds to lay at the apostles’ feet for distribution. Laying their gifts at the apostles’ feet was a sign of submission to the apostle’s authority.3
Think of Ruth, lying down at Boaz’ feet, or the magi, bringing gifts to Jesus at his birth. Think of Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet to hear his teaching, or the centurion at the foot of the cross, announcing, “Surely this was the Son of God.” Now, as the members of First United Church of Jerusalem bring their gifts to support one another, they place them at the feet of the apostles, submitting to the authority of these “sent ones” to distribute resources where they are needed.
I am reminded of the Daily Text published on the Seedbed.com website. This week, J.D. Walt has been examining Ephesians 5, and how Paul’s instructions on marriage inform our life in the church. Walt points out that our view of power determines the lens through which we read scripture. Our culture today often views power from a perspective of hierarchy – who’s at the top or at the bottom.
But Ephesians 5:21 reads, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In this new view of power, we are called to mutual submission. Verse 22 goes on to say, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands, as you do to the Lord,” and some people interpret this from a hierarchical view, where husbands have power over their wives. This view is often called complementarian – the two people in a marriage have complementary, but unequal roles. Those who place more emphasis on verse 21, where mutual submission is highlighted, are called egalitarian – both partners in the marriage share power equally as they submit to one another.
But Walt suggests that maybe we are interpreting both of these verses through the wrong lens, because “both models are worldly models of power centered around control.”4
What Jesus teaches, and what we find here in the early chapters of the book of Acts, is a model of power centered around surrendering control and reversing hierarchy. Walt calls this “lower-archy” and he goes on to describe how lower-archy in marriage reflects our relationship with Christ. Ephesians 5:32 reads, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”This brings us back to the early church in Acts 4. The reason there was such unity among so many diverse people, who had come together as a community in a very short time, is that they had all submitted themselves to Christ, and that “lower-archy” was the very thing that allowed the Holy Spirit to breathe through them with such power. It’s what led them to sell their possessions to take care of each other.
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.
Now, I want to be very clear about something here. This community of faith demonstrated amazing generosity to make sure its members had what they needed. They took care of each other. This was not a case of the rich doling out their excess to provide for the poor. It was not a case of the poor becoming dependent on the rich to take care of them. The wealthier members of First Church Jerusalem did not see themselves as better than, smarter than, or worthier than their less well-to-do brothers and sisters. When a need arose, someone who had some resources willingly contributed those resources to meet the need. The apostles distributed the resources accordingly. There was no shame here, and no pride.
In their book When Helping Hurts, Steven Corbett and Brian Fikkert explain that many times, the ‘help’ offered to the economically poor is ineffective, because it communicates that those offering the help are superior, and those receiving it are inferior. This view damages both the giver and the receiver. It causes shame in the receiver, and gives the donor an inflated view of self. Both kinds of brokenness only perpetuate the problem: the poor begin to believe that they must depend on the benevolence of others, and the rich start to believe that “they know what’s best for low-income people, who they see as inferior to themselves. … Until we embrace our mutual brokenness,” Corbett and Fikkert write, “our work … is likely to do more harm than good.”5
This is the difference between what was happening at First Church Jerusalem, and what happens so often when churches today offer help “to the less fortunate.” Whenever we set up a “more fortunate/less fortunate” comparison, we deny the power of the Holy Spirit, we deny our own brokenness, and we deny the personhood of those Christ calls us to name as our brothers and sisters. Whenever we see ourselves as “other than” the ones we’ve been sent as apostles to reach, we prevent the very kind of unity into which Christ calls us.
We can’t experience being of one heart and soul with people we refuse to see as part of us. Whenever we insist on giving out of our excess – whatever is left over after we pay our own bills and take care of our own desires – instead of working together to take care of each other, we weaken our testimony to the power of the resurrection. God calls us to more than offering a handout, or even a hand up. God calls us to repent of our brokenness, so that the Holy Spirit can move in and through us to bear witness to the reality of resurrection, both Christ’s and our own.
When we are of one heart and soul, when none of us thinks we are somehow better or more blessed than our neighbor, and none of us thinks we are in any way inferior to our neighbor, but we hold all things in common, then grace will be upon us, and we will be able to proclaim through the power of the Holy Spirit that the Lord is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
1 Walter Liefeld, Interpreting the Book of Acts, 32.
2 Life Application Bible Studies: Acts, notes on vv. 32-35 (p.15).
3 Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts, 100.