Acts 4 is enough to break your heart.
Was it really true at the earliest stage of the Christian community that the believers were completely one in heart and mind? Did they really share absolutely everything even as they fell adoringly and reverently at the feet of the apostles, hanging on their every word (and with nary a criticism of any sermon they preached)?
The truth is that even the Book of Acts itself testifies to the fact that from the earliest days of the Christian church forward, a measure of disagreement and strife and conflict was present. Acts is remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which is its bracing honesty in admitting that sometimes the apostles disagreed and had to call special councils to hammer out their understanding of grace. Sometimes some of the apostles disagreed so sharply with one another that they had to continue their work for the Lord down separate paths.
And that’s just the Book of Acts. If you read between the lines—and sometimes you can read the lines themselves—in epistles like I Corinthians, Galatians, and Thessalonians, you can see how often Paul had to mediate disagreements among believers and correct (sometimes sharply and harshly) false ideas and practices the earliest Christians had adopted within their church communities. Even the friendliest letter in the New Testament, the Letter to the Philippians, has to pause near the end to tell two women to stop their public squabble and get along for Jesus’ sake.
It is good and pleasant when brothers and sisters in the Lord get along. It is good and pleasant when Christian believers can share things in common and cling to the one Word of Life that just is the apostolic witness of the gospel. But it is also sadly true that complete unity and utter harmony across all boundaries, times, and places are rare and unusual.
As William Willimon has noted, there may even be something curious about the fact that this snippet of Acts 4 get assigned for the Sunday after Easter in the Year B Common Lectionary. After all, this is known as “Low Sunday” in a lot of places, not least because whereas the church had probably been full to capacity the Sunday prior, the Sunday after Easter often features a whole lot of empty pews.
A couple of years ago I attended one of three Easter Sunday morning services at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. It was the first time in my life I had to stand in line for church! The young people of the congregation were carrying around trays of hot cider to warm us as we waited in an April chill in lines that snaked all the way around several city blocks just off Michigan Avenue. But I know that had I attended this same church the following Sunday, I could have arrived 5 minutes late and still had no problem in finding a seat—indeed, I would likely have my pick of lots of places to sit.
So how curious to assign a reading about the people of God being all together in one place on a Sunday when, if anything, we note how many people are missing! (And then aren’t we also tempted to grumble about those fellow church members who show up just on Christmas and Easter and oh my goodness what kind of a faith is that . . .!?)
But, of course, the key is not really the size of the crowd at any given church on any given Sunday. And to be honest, the real deep spiritual key to Acts 4 is not the presence of air-tight Christian unity, either. The key is the fact that we still have a Christian community in the first place all these centuries after the resurrection. Despite all that has changed in the church, despite all the fractures and schisms and splits and theological hair-splitting that along the ages have resulted in the kaleidoscope of denominations that we have across the world today, there remains a common article of faith that all Christian people are still able to say in complete unity each time they recite the great creed:
“The third day he rose again from the dead.”
“With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and there was much grace on them all.” That’s what we read in Acts 4:33 and as William Willimon notes, that was the core to it all. The resurrection made all the difference. The resurrection created a community of faith among disparate people who had never before been part of such a community. And despite all the tug-o-wars in Acts and throughout the rest of the New Testament, that core conviction that Jesus lives and that he is the resurrected Lord of Life persisted then and persists all the way down to this present day.
Our unity is never perfect. We have a hard time sharing all things in common. And yet . . . the Church is still here. In a million places and ways every single day believers continue to witness to the power of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. And even though we cannot agree on what happens to the bread at the Lord’s Supper or whether it’s OK to ask the Virgin Mary to pray for us or whether babies should be baptized or whether the Bible says the earth is 10,000 years old or allows for it being millions of years old: despite it all, the Christian community continues to exist as a living testament to the truth of the line “Jesus lives and so do we.”
Even on the Sunday after Easter—or maybe it’s really especially on the Sunday after Easter—when the lilies are gone, the brass is packed away, and the crowds are a little thin, it is still true that when the people of God gather as they have gathered for twenty centuries now, they bear witness to the resurrection and to that common Christian conviction that “on the third day he rose again from the dead.” In John 20 Jesus told Thomas that lots of people would come who had not been an eyewitness to the resurrected Christ the way Thomas was but they would be blessed for their faith anyway. Today we are here as living proof that Jesus was right. And just maybe that is proof enough.
No, none of this is an excuse for the arguments we too often have in our congregations or for the other signs of disunity that mar and mark the church today. But it is testament to the grace-filled fact that just beneath the surface of all that divides people is the living presence of the resurrected Savior and that it is finally his holy voice that makes our every gathering a good and pleasant thing after all.
A pastor friend of mine has long had a great affinity for the Orthodox part of the larger Christian Body on earth and in particular he has been a student of Russian Orthodoxy for a long time. He speaks fluent Russian and has led many tour groups to Russia across the years.
Quite a few years ago, when the Soviet Union was still in full command of its large communist empire, my friend was in Moscow over Easter. And he participated in a large Easter Vigil in front of one of the biggest Russian Orthodox churches. As part of the vigil, large crowds gathered in the square in front of the cathedral. At midnight as Holy Saturday gave way to Easter Sunday, someone knocked on the large doors leading into the church. At that moment the priest on the inside flung open the doors and said (in Russian, of course) in a loud voice to the waiting crowd, “He is risen!”
And with one voice the crowd thundered back, “Risen indeed!”
My friend will testify that he is a life-long Christian believer. But he will also tell you that at that moment—when in the heart of communist darkness he heard that throng of people roar forth its unison “Risen indeed”—he just knew the whole thing was true. The gospel, the resurrection, the abiding presence of Jesus among his people to this day: it’s all true. He just knew it in a way he had seldom known it before.
One of the earliest evidences of the truth of the resurrection was the fact that the disciples—who had so teetered on the brink of just scattering into the wind after the death of Jesus—not only reassembled themselves but managed to create a whole new community that grew beyond all telling. The community of the resurrected One bore witness to the truth of the whole gospel enterprise.
As my friend will tell you, to this day when God’s people testify together in harmony and unity to the fact that he is “Risen indeed,” that apostolic witness is confirmed in a most dramatic way indeed.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 8, 2018
Acts 4:32-35 Commentary