“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.”
The second Sunday of Easter, in some traditions, is celebrated as Holy Humor Sunday – with jokes and pranks and general merriment. Since Easter Sunday was also April Fools Day, we latched onto this idea of Holy Humor at our brunch potluck last week, by passing out Laffy Taffy along with Communion and sharing cheesy jokes around the table as we gave thanks for and remembered. And today, you may be latching onto the idea of Holy Humor again as we read our focus passage from Acts, in which those church members who owned houses and land sold them and brought the proceeds of what they sold to the church to be redistributed by the apostles to anyone in need. HA! “And there was not a needy person among them.” Some people talk about wanting to be a “New Testament church,” but I think they must laugh this part off or read real quick through it to get to something else.
Side note: It’s always been amazing to me how people who advocate a surface-reading, inerrant, “the-bible-says-it-so-I-believe-it” approach to Scripture are sooo quick to appeal to cultural context and theological interpretation and narrative flow on this passage (and others like it)… People who accuse us of “explaining away” parts of the NT that seem to prohibit women from speaking in church or teaching men are all to willing to “explain away” parts of the New Testament that seem to model a system of common goods, shared property, and sacrificial giving.
I actually don’t advocate explain anything away. I do think we should be careful and responsible and spirit-led interpreters of Scripture who look at the whole story, acknowledge the context, and ask the hard questions about how our ancient stories connect to and inform our lives today. So, spoiler alert: I’m not going to ask you to sell your house and lay the proceeds at my feet, but don’t exhale too hard in your sigh of relief, because this snapshot of the early church still asks something of us. Maybe something harder than just writing an occasional big check.
The church in Jerusalem was the very first church. It’s the group of Jesus-followers led by the disciples after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. It’s the gathering of those who knew and loved and believed Jesus and those who heard those first witnesses tell about him and believed their story that Jesus was Lord and Messiah, and that he’d been risen from the dead as the first-fruit of the resurrection of all creation. There was energy, there was urgency, this was a growing movement, and Luke writes that“great grace was upon them all.” We are missing out when we hurry past this passage (or avoid Acts altogether) because it talks about money, a taboo subject in a church like ours. “Great grace was upon them!” Unclench your teeth or fists (or whatever you have clenched), take a deep breath, and let’s lean into this sacred story. How can the church in Acts prompt our imaginations on what it means for us to be the church? What can we learn about “great grace” from these, our ancestors in the faith? Grace, by definition, is pure gift, given by God. There isn’t anything we can do to make “great grace” happen. No 5 step plan for bringing “great grace” into your lives or our life as a church. BUT there is a certain amount of living into the reality of God’s grace, living into the truth of the resurrection, that is modelled for us by that very first Jerusalem church. Believing in Jesus is not just an intellectual task. It isn’t something we just do with our minds. Believing in Jesus is something we do church does with our bodies, with our voices, with our resources.
One thing we learn about the Jerusalem church is that they were united. “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.” Church unity is sign of great grace in the Jerusalem church, but what does church unity mean? What does it look like? The group of those who believed were of one heart and one soul. We know from earlier in Acts that they were very different in many ways – there were rich and poor, locals and foreigners, men and women, old and young, religious and not-so-religious, privileged and oppressed. And this wildly different, weird, unlikely group came together with “one heart and soul.” This doesn’t mean that they didn’t have conflict. Read Acts. There is a LOT of church conflict. But they were open with each other, they were open TO each other, and they held all things in common. They did the difficult and costly work of getting rid of the lines that divided them. This seems unfair, doesn’t it? Being the church was costly to those who were rich and privileged, and it was a great benefit to those who were needy and oppressed. It doesn’t seem like this is the greatest outreach strategy, does it? This is why the early church had very few people with money and favor and status, but had a whole lot of slaves and women and lower class people. What’s that old saying? “The gospel comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable”? That seems to be true in this first church, and no doubt the practice of radical openness to each other and unity in heart and soul (and possessions) drove lots of good wealthy people away from the movement. The message of the church was polarizing, it looked kinda crazy. But those who bought into it were united in heart and soul.
The Jerusalem church shows us that being united inwardly is connected to being united outwardly. Those things are not separate. Being united doesn’t mean we look alike or think alike or belong to the same social club, it means we are open to each other, we look after each other’s needs, and we do whatever we can to knock down the hierarchies that divide us – to erase the lines that give some of us privilege and keep some of us downtrodden. What are the lines that threaten to divide us? Wealth or gender or sexual orientation or age or vocation or nationality – anything that the world uses to identify who is important, who gets a say, who God loves, whose voice matters – That earliest church just takes a wrecking ball to all of that. Church unity is not easy, and it’s not popular – it comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, and the truth is that in our church, we’re pretty comfortable in a lot of ways. How far are we willing to go for unity? What are we willing to let go of? True unity is not for the faint of heart.
Another thing we learn about the Jerusalem church is that they were bold. In our passage we read, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” The apostles spoke boldly. And this did not always go well for them. Just before the passage we read today, Peter and John were speaking in the Temple to the people and the priests, proclaiming “that in Jesus there is resurrection of the dead.” And the Sadducees had them arrested. They spent the night in jail and were released the next day after questioning, with a warning. Acts 4:18: “So they called the and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.” And Peter and John basically say, “If we have to choose between following your orders and God’s orders, to listen to your law or to God’s command, we’re gonna have to go with what we’ve seen and heard from God every time.” After they are released, sure enough, they immediately start preaching in Jesus name again. The believers pray together for boldness in verse 29, “And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness.”
The church in Acts demonstrates bold proclamation. They are proclaiming Jesus’ death and resurrection, but not just that! They are proclaiming the good news that through Jesus resurrection life abounds, spills out and over, into our own hope for the future AND into the way we live and are brought to life by God NOW. What is our message, church? Where have you seen the resurrected Christ? How has God brought you from death to life? Preaching it boldly is a risk. Great grace doesn’t mean you won’t get arrested or threatened or slandered. In fact, a lot of times, great grace makes it much more likely that you will. But you’ll be in the company of the saints – Peter and John and Paul and Martin Luther King Jr. and all the saints who believed with their voices and with their bodies in the resurrection power of Jesus. One sign of great grace is bold proclamation in the face of opposition.
The last sign of grace I want us to consider in our text today (the reason we are tempted to just skip on over the passage altogether) is the incredible, selfless, foolish generosity of the Jerusalem church. Luke writes: “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.” When the church is born, it doesn’t escape the world. Proclaiming resurrection and life doesn’t mean we get to skip over the regular old needs of living in the here and now. People need to eat and pay their electric bills. The grass needs to be mowed and the floor mopped and the mortgage paid. The birth of the church in Jerusalem was marked by selfless generosity and sharing for the needs of the people in the church and for their gathering together.
Of course, being the church means that we give in lots of ways, through our time (blowing leaves off the path, preparing and leading the music, teaching Sunday School, cooking for the potluck, hosting interns, the list goes on and on…). And all of those things are so important and crucial for the life of our church. But when we give financially, whether it’s just a little or a lot, we are participating in a practice that is equally important. When we give money, when we take up the offering and lay it on the altar with prayers that God will take and use it in the church and in the world, we are practicing a unique kind of giving. When we give our time and talent, we’re still in control – our gift is on our own terms, and we decide what it is used for and when. But dropping your hard earned cash in the offering plate requires a release of power. Your voice in the church counts the same as every other voice, no matter how much you give, so it’s a practice of faith in the body of Christ to give financially to the church.
This isn’t the first or last time this kind of giving is mentioned in Acts. Selfless giving was a practice, a habit of the Jerusalem Christians, and it sometimes got them into trouble. They were so generous that they had to be bailed out by other churches (We find out in Romans that Paul is on a fundraising campaign for them). Great grace doesn’t guarantee us financial security, it inspires us to give foolishly. This may not meant selling a house or land, but it does mean practicing uncomfortable giving. Practicing releasing control and putting our trust in God through gifts that actually cost something. This will look different for each of us. For my family, this means tithing 10% of our paychecks to the church, and practicing special almsgiving for other causes (like the backpack ministry, or Baptist women in ministry, or the preemptive love coalition) as we’re led and able. When Dom starts getting an allowance, I’ll encourage him to give a portion to the church in the same way that I teach him to pray and serve. Giving is a spiritual practice and a sign of grace that I want to be second nature for him.
The habitual practice of financial giving to the local church is an opportunity that goes beyond giving to a good cause, or paying your dues in a social club. Giving to your local church is a tangible act of laying down your privilege and control and being united in one mission and purpose, it’s is a bold and costly proclamation that God will provide for you, and that what we’re doing here is giving birth to a new and resurrected world.
The church in Acts challenges and inspires us to believe in the resurrection of Jesus with our voices (to speak boldly), with our bodies (to knock down the boundaries that divide us), with our resources (to practice relinquishing control by giving sacrificially). This is what the church looks like when “great grace is upon them all.” I didn’t ask you to sell your houses, but I know this picture of the church asks a lot. It’s almost as if those Christians in Jerusalem actually believed what Jesus said about laying their lives down for each other. It is possible. And it isn’t always smooth or pretty. But it is a picture of “great grace.”
Covenant, may we be brave enough, selfless enough, loving enough to ask God for great grace, whatever the cost.