Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 11, 2021
Acts 4:32-35 Commentary
Very early in my preaching ministry, I was producing one theological/exegetical masterpiece after another (in my own mind). My wife wasn’t so convinced. She put up with it for about a month, when she nailed me with this simple question. “So what? What difference does all that make?”
In the Old Testament (?) readings for the Easter season, the RCL answers that question about Christ’s resurrection by taking us through the post-Easter story as told in the book of Acts. So, one man dies and allegedly rises from the dead. So what? What difference does that make? Was it a one-off miraculous event, after which the world pretty much went on as before? Or did it make a difference that could be observed in the world?
Our reading for today shows us perhaps the most astonishing visible difference Easter made. In fact, were I to preach on it, I might entitle my sermon, “The Second Greatest Easter Miracle.” The first, of course, was the resurrection of Jesus. Others might argue that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was the second, but I think that Pentecost was a miracle in its own right. Still others might nominate the conversion of 3000 people in response to Peter’s preaching of the Risen Christ, or the healing of the crippled beggar in Christ’s name, or the apostles’ courage under fire and the subsequent conversion of 2000 more. All of those events were incredible events tied directly to Easter.
But they all issued into this impossible miracle in our reading. Because of Christ’s resurrection, the Holy Spirit created a radical community characterized by sacrificial giving. That community demonstrated and initiated what God was trying to accomplish in the person and work of the Resurrected One. Let’s consider it carefully.
The opening line seems ridiculous on its face. “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” Can you imagine such a thing in our splintered society or even in our equally conflicted churches? “All the believers!” See Acts 2:5-11 for the guest list. “All the believers” were people from all over the Roman empire—from Rome itself and all its subject nations, from Asia and Africa, from rough and tumble Crete and sophisticated Egypt, Jews and non-Jews, including Arabs, rich and poor—a virtual United Nations.
And that’s the point—they were united, “one in heart and mind.” Can you imagine that? They are from different countries, speak different languages, belong to different classes, come from different educational backgrounds, hold different political persuasions. And now, because of Christ’s resurrection and the work of the Holy Spirit they are one in heart and mind. How can that be? How could they all think the same?
Well, here the original language helps us a bit. They were “one in kardia (heart) and psyche (soul, not mind).” They did not think the same about everything; they did not leave all their previous ideas at the church door. But in spite of their social and political and national and language differences, they were one in heart and soul, in their inner beings, at the heart and soul of their lives. And that is remarkable. How can people hold different ideas about all those things and still be one in heart and soul?
And note that their unity was not merely internal. It was manifested in a marvelous external way—in their sacrificial generosity, a generosity that began with a revolutionary conviction about private property. “No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.” As a result, “there was no needy person among them.”
We need to read this carefully. Some have read this and called it “Christian communism.” Some have said that it proves that private property is an invention of Western capitalism. Be careful here. It says that people had possessions, but now as a result of the Resurrection, they didn’t see their private property as merely their own. Instead, they freely shared everything with each other.
This is not communism or even socialism, which are political systems involving state control of some or all property. This is Christian community, which is driven not by political power but by the Holy-Spirit-produced conviction that property belongs to the Lord Jesus and is given by him to be shared by us with others. This is not about politics; this is about sharing in a sacrificial, Christ-like way.
So much so, that there was not a “needy person among them.” Later in the life of the church, Paul says, “If someone will not work, let him not eat (II Thess. 3:10).” That work ethic is healthy and good, but here in the early life of the church, when so many could not work because they were pilgrims far from home (or tourists or refugees or immigrants), the church instantly saw its responsibility to take care of the needy.
We must be very careful not to let that work ethic dull our sensitivities to the poor. In the early church, there were no needy people, because those who had worked hard and earned their stuff saw that what they had was not their own, but Christ’s. So “from time to time those who owned (again, private property) lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sale and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” People weren’t asked to give up their private property. They still owned it, but from time to time, when there was need, they freely gave it up for the needy.
So, as a result of the Resurrection of Jesus, a new community was formed in the world, a radical community of hopelessly diverse people who were so united in heart and soul that they held their possessions loosely and gave freely so that everyone in the community had enough of everything. John Rottman, my colleague at Calvin Theological Seminary, has said that this reads like a kind of ecclesiastical Lake Wobegone (the fictional home town of comedian and writer Garrison Keillor), where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” It’s “so ideal, so fanciful, that some have suggested that Luke made it up.”
No, it wasn’t Luke who created it. It was created by the Risen Christ by the power of the Spirit. It was God doing what God had planned in the grand drama of redemption. As Paul said in Ephesians 1:9, 10, “God has made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.”
That’s why all of our readings for this Second Sunday of Easter are about fellowship: Psalm 133, where “brethren dwell in sweet accord;” John 20:19-31, where the disciples gather on Easter evening and encounter the Risen One; and I John 1:1-2:2 with its repeated mention of fellowship. Sin has fractured everything, separating us from God and from each other and from creation and even from our own selves. God’s gracious intention is to re-unite everything in and through Christ.
This second greatest Easter miracle shows us that the fulfillment of God’s plan has already begun. In a world filled with divisions, in a church divided over politics and pandemics and race and money, it ought to make us weep to see what the church can be in this world. Indeed, this is what the church must be in this world, if this world is ever going to believe in the Risen Christ. Recall how Jesus emphasized the importance of Christian unity in his prayer in John 17:20-23: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one…. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you have sent me and have loved them, even as you have loved me.”
If the church is as divided as the world, why would anyone believe that Jesus came from God to save the world? When there is no difference between us and the world because we have adopted the world’s divisions, the world will simply say, “Why should we believe in the saving power of Jesus, when you are just like us.” Indeed, the world is saying that very thing right now.
For the sake of the world, for the sake of the church, for the sake of each and every one of us, we must become the kind of radical community we see here in Acts 4. But how is that possible? How can we overcome our divisions? Must we change our minds about everything, give up our convictions about politics and philosophies and possessions?
No, the only way to find unity among all our diversity is to unite around the Living Christ. That’s what our text says. In the middle of all the talk about giving and sharing is this powerful verse. “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus and much grace was upon them all.” Only when the Risen Jesus is Lord of all our ideas and our affiliations and our possessions will unity be possible. Only when Jesus is more important than anything else will unity happen. Only when we focus our hearts and souls on him will grace dominate our lives.
That’s what it will take to unite with people different from us—the grace that united us with God through Christ, in spite of our sins and rebellion and folly. Only when we look at each other through the eyes of Christ who has accepted us in his grace can we have the unity that will attract the world to Jesus.
But how can we focus on the Christ and how can we be dominated by grace, when we are so deeply divided? Only by the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s the power by which the apostles preached the Risen Christ. That’s the power that overcame the sin of separation. Just before this text, the church had experienced the first persecution. They gathered to pray for the strength to persevere in the face of threats. Here’s how God responded. “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”
The very next thing we read is, “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” It’s possible today, where the Risen Christ is Lord and when the Spirit pours grace upon us all. May that be our prayer.
The kind of sacrificial giving that proved the church’s unity way back then is not just a distant memory. In my ministry, I have seen astonishing examples of giving that made my heart soar. I read about one just last night, and it wasn’t even in the church. MacKenzie Scott has given away $4 billion in the last four months, after giving away $1.7 billion in July. Ms. Scott is the divorced wife of Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame. In their divorce, she received ¼ of his net worth. Since that time, her wealth has grown by some $23.6 billion up to $60.7 billion, making her the 18th wealthiest person in the world. She has signed the “Giving Pledge” along with folks like Buffet and Gates, in which she has promised to give away all of her wealth before she dies. I could find no evidence that she is a Christian. But some kind of grace is upon a woman who would say this: “I have a disproportionate amount of money to share… I will keep at it until the safe is empty.”
I know that I have used this illustration before, as have my colleagues here at the Center for Excellence in Preaching, but it’s perfect for this text. In the movie, “Places in the Heart,” there is a wealth of violence and hatred and racism and cruelty and greed. But in the closing scene of the movie, we see a congregation assembled in a small brick church. It’s composed of all the characters in the movie—the villains and victims, the good and the evil, black and white, rich and poor. They are sitting next to each other, as they pass the elements of Communion to each other. After a lifetime of being separated by unbreakable barriers, they are united around the crucified and risen Christ (the choir is singing the ancient Easter song, “I Walk in the Garden”). You can find that scene on line. Watch it for the emotional wallop, and show it to your congregation if you are able.
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