Sermon #229 St. James the Less #136 4/11/21
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.
Each year during the great 50 days of Easter we set aside the Old Testament readings and instead read about the continued work of the risen Jesus and the early Christian community in the book of Acts.
Though I am a lover of the Old Testament, and it breaks my heart a little bit that we aren’t reading from it for the next few weeks, it does seem appropriate that we spend some time delving into the magnificent themes found in Acts of the Apostles.
Like we said last week, this Easter feels like a rebirth for this church, a fresh start as we, week by week welcome back more of our old friends and new acquaintances. This may be the closest we ever get to feeling what it was like for that new Christian community in Jerusalem, where it seemed, God was adding to their number “day by day.”
Now any keen reader of the Bible will know that the title of this book is deceiving because it is not in fact, the Acts of the Apostles that is the primary focus. St. Luke, the author of this text, actually emphasized throughout this work the acts of the Holy Spirit. The apostles were mere conduits of the Holy Spirit’s work, and many times they themselves were baffled at what God was up to.
In our reading from Acts 4 today we hear about the early Christian community, and the description of their common life together is quite shocking. It says, “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.”
Some have claimed that this is a form of communism, but that is misguided. We’re reading this ancient text through a 21st century lens when we do that. But taking a closer look, we will come to realize it is like comparing apples and oranges.
We know from history that there is not equal sharing in communism—the more power you have the more lavishly you live. Equality is never attained, and rarely sought after. On the flipside, you have the early church that was specifically caring for the poor and needy. They went out of their way to care for the widows and orphans among them.
And where in communism ownership is imposed from the “top down” through the state, these early Christians were not forced by St. Peter and the apostles into this way of life—rather they did it because they were of “one heart and soul.” Far from being imposed, it was an organic and natural decision that the body came to.
It’s this phrase being of “one heart and soul” that is the key for us understanding why these believers would do such a radical thing. They were, above all else, putting generosity and care for each other at the heart of their community. This had nothing to do with communism but rather it had everything to do with the Kingdom of God.
In fact, the seeds of this way of living are planted deep within the Old Testament. So even though we may be reading Acts through the Easter season, we need the Old Testament to help us interpret the actions of the early church.
These first Christians were living out the “year of cancelling debts” which is talked about in detail in Deuteronomy 15. It was a time to cancel financial debts, freeing slaves, and renewing the land in which they toiled. The whole year was supposed to be filled with grace and rest.
In Deuteronomy it says, “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite… However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance…If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need…Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”
But the law goes even further. These Sabbath years occurred every seven years, but after seven cycles of this, or 49 years, the 50th year was known as the year of jubilee.
Leviticus 25 tells us all about what is required. It says,
“Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan…do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. If you sell land to any of your own people or buy land from them, do not take advantage of each other…but fear your God. I am the Lord your God…‘If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.”
You see, the first Christians were saying through their actions that the year of jubilee was finally here. As Jesus on the cross cancelled their debt, they were now going to live in the freedom and joy of this good news.
They were going to care for the poor around them just at the Old Testament laws said. And not because they were legalists, but because they saw Jesus as fulfilling the Old Testament prophesies. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God’s reign was breaking into this world and they were caught up in the joy of jubilee.
What is so convicting about this story from Acts is that this early Christian community was living out their beliefs. They weren’t just saying they loved God and their neighbor—they were actually doing it.
Through their lives they were showing to the world concrete examples of God’s Kingdom coming to earth. They were an alternative community, a sign, and symbol to the world that Jesus’ death and resurrection set in motion something utterly new and yet also rooted in the ancient writings of the Bible.
Now it is important at this time to note that they didn’t sell everything. They continued to meet in one another’s home—that was where the church gathered after all in those early days.
We also know that this way of living was not fully adopted by every Christian community. We read during Paul’s missionary journeys that he was welcomed into a number of believers’ homes. There are even some tensions later on between wealthy and poor believers in the same church.
And so, even for the early churches sprinkled around the Mediterranean, the church in Jerusalem was a bright light to the rest of them of sacrificial love and jubilee. They were embodying the love and freedom they found in the risen Jesus. Freedom from the fear and insecurity that money brings, the insatiable appetite for more, and the greed and jealousy that seeps into individuals and communities.
They were showing us that there is a different way, and they had purposefully chosen the jubilee way together.
A little over a year ago I heard a priest named Mark Clavier give a talk here in Nashville about a new ministry he was forming at Brecon Cathedral in Wales. The ministry is called Convivium which means in Latin “to live together, feast, banquet.” It’s where we get the English word conviviality which denotes a quality of being festive.
The point of this ministry is to inspire churches and local communities to live well together—in harmony with God, with our neighbor, and with creation.
"Delight" is a word they use a lot for this ministry. We were created by God for delight, “to enjoy the other for its own sake, and to grow in mind and spirit in open generosity otherwise known as love.”
When a community is rooted in this divinely inspired delight, there is at the core a sense of joy, generosity, and fellowship. It’s really about being a well-formed human being who stands in awe of God and the great gifts he has given us through relationship with our neighbor and the wonder of his creation.
I find it to be an inspiring vision for the 21st century church. If there is anything we’ve learned over this past year, it’s that we need to find ways to live together. But just tolerating each other will not do, we are called to delight in one another; to celebrate with joy who we are in the eyes of our Heavenly Father.
Rarely, if ever, would people talk about the church as a place of delight—I’m well aware of that. But the church in Acts 4 shows us that that may have been the original intention all along.
The church was called to be a people of jubilee, proclaiming the good news through word and deed about what God had done on their behalf through Jesus Christ.
Somewhere down the road we lost our way—our priorities became distorted; we grew complacent and lethargic.
But thankfully it’s not too late. Here among us are already seeds of delight springing up before our very eyes. We come together during this Easter season to rejoice in the God who lives and reigns. We proclaim that Christ is indeed risen, and we are forever changed because of that central fact.
As a people of the resurrection, we are then naturally people of jubilee and delight whether we realize it or not.
All we must do now is claim it. Claim those beautiful descriptions of the early church as our own. Claim being a people of delight, joy, and jubilee. May we claim it and live it to the glory of God!
2nd Sunday of Easter. Year B. Acts 4:32-35. Communism vs. the early church: https://sermonwriter.com/biblical-commentary-old/acts-432-35/. Convivium: https://convivium-brecon.com/principles-of-convivium/. Jubilee connection: Acts for Everyone N.T. Wright.