Our wonderful pastor was called away, along with her family, to celebrate the life and mourn the death of a dear family member. Hence this sermon, based on Acts 4:32-35:
We don’t actually know a lot about the earliest church, the earliest Christians.
Yes, there are whole large sections in libraries about life in the ancient world, when the church was born. And yes, those early Christians left us some of their own words – like this little text from the book of Acts. But what our scriptures give us are more like tantalizing tidbits, not the entire menu, let alone a cookbook full of recipes. Most of the day-to-day details of their way of life we have to guess at.
So Christians down through the centuries have been fascinated by this little portrait, this miniature, of that earliest Christian community. And over and over again, historically, Christians have said to themselves “we need to get back to that first Christian way of life, that original way of life.” The monastics in the Egyptian desert in the second century were already saying that, and then the monks down through the centuries from St. Benedict to St. Bernard to St. Francis, and then the Anabaptists in the 16th century, to the Bruderhof and the Latin American base communities in the 20th century – for instance.
Christians have tried over and over to model themselves on that original Christian community, because even though we don’t know a lot about those early Christians, we have a sense that we know something, something important about them. We know something important about the way they lived. We can tell, we can feel, that they were different, they lived like changed people. And most of us, when we hear about that, we want that, too.
Or, we want at least a little of that.
We might not want ALL of it. Some of that description might sound too “political” to us – like, the kind of thing that will get us blocked on Facebook. Some of us, when we hear that the early Christians had all their possessions in common, will think of at least one or two possessions we’d like to have all to ourselves. A toothbrush, perhaps. Or a cell phone.
Our thoughts here can quickly trip us up, and tangle us up, and make us lose sight of the main outlines of this little glimpse of that first bright burst of human life in the light of the risen Christ. When, actually, those main outlines are all we really have.
And what those main outlines show us is a community that is living out, or doing its best to live out, what Jesus had told them was the greatest commandment: to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.
The text makes that point, calls our attention to it: they were of one heart and soul – they had one love; and the apostles were using all their power, their strength, to share the astonishing, life-changing good news of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Which they had felt the full force of – they’d seen and heard and touched the risen Christ – at least, the famous doubting Thomas had touched him, Jesus had said, here, touch my hands, touch my side, don’t be doubting, be believing, and that had changed Thomas’s world. They’d eaten with Jesus. They were living in an entirely new world, a world in which what looked like the end had turned out to be just the beginning. It must have seemed to them like anything was possible. So they were moved by that Spirit of possibility.
And they were moved by the great grace they felt from God. They knew their own power and goodness hadn’t brought Christ back to life. The apostles were well aware that they had all run the other way when Jesus was arrested. Peter could remember vividly how many times he’d denied even knowing Jesus. Each one of these people had been hiding in fear of their lives on the first Easter day. So they knew, with crystal clarity, that this new chance at life wasn’t something they were entitled to, wasn’t something they’d earned, but was a pure gift. And that is exactly what we mean by “grace:” a pure gift.
Now, we ourselves can imagine, when people suddenly get a gift that makes them feel rich beyond their wildest dreams, it is suddenly easy to share with others. We have probably had this experience ourselves: of having a superabundance of something, more than we can use ourselves, whether it was zucchini or ripe tomatoes in the summer or all those baby clothes that we gave to the cousin of a friend of a friend, or you name it, our first thought is to share.
This is how this early community of people, many of them poor, many of them slaves, seems to have felt: that they were suddenly rich beyond their wildest dreams. So whenever someone needed something, they were right there to help as best they could. It seems they suddenly saw one another more as family members than as strangers. What would any of us do if our son or daughter called us and said “Mom, Dad, I need some help – could you help me?” It seems as if these earliest Christians felt like they were members of a single big household – the household of the Lord, the household of Jesus Christ. So they were trying to live that way.
It was a whole new way of life, a transformative way of life. Especially for its time and place. Because from what we do actually know about the ancient world, life there was exceptionally harsh and insecure. Far harsher and more insecure than we can probably imagine, from the vantage point of our world.
Because I’m sure that when we think of “our world,” we can think of plenty of sins and crimes and harshnesses and insecurities, and no doubt we should think of those. All we have to do is read the latest headlines. We are well aware of how much work still needs doing to realize the ideal described by one of our hymns as Christ’s mission: “all at peace in health and freedom, races joined, the church made one.”
We can get so tripped up and tangled up in our present problems that we miss one of the main outlines: compared to that ancient world, this world has in fact already been noticeably bent towards justice, and towards kindness, and towards compassion, by the pushing and pulling of a couple of thousand years of Christians trying to live like Christians. That new way of life, that transformative way of life, has made a difference.
Even when we haven’t lived it perfectly. Those earliest Christians were far from perfect, too, individually and collectively. They still had a lot of growing to do, too. If we read a bit further in the book of Acts, in fact, we’d see that. [I’d encourage everyone to do that – because I think that story would make a great stewardship lesson! Although I’ve gotten a lot of pushback on this from my class.] But they have left us this bright vision of a way of life that is an extension of the life of the risen Christ. And as we know, the life of the risen Christ is itself an expression of the life of God, and an invitation into that community of love that is the living Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We might not immediately see ourselves in that bright vision. We can get tripped up and tangled up thinking about how our day-to-day Christian lives, our ordinary familiar lives, are so different from those early Christians’ lives. We lose sight of the main outlines: that we are closer to those early Christians than we think, than we realize.
We do not have to share our toothbrushes, or our cell phones, to be living in the light of the risen Christ. We’re still being moved by the vision of loving the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. These days, that vision would include scenes of shopping at JayC and sharing boxes of pasta and green beans with the food pantry at Harrison County Community Services. It would include helping the Genesis House, a halfway house for women in recovery, who are our neighbors here in Corydon, buy fresh produce by sharing the loose offering we collect one Sunday a week with them. It would even include us praying about and exploring the possibility of organizing a soup kitchen that would provide a hot meal once a week to hungry local residents, something people might have seen in the latest newsletter, that is just on the horizon and something we are investigating. It’s still about acting like members of the astonishing household of the risen Christ.
Just like those earliest Christians, we have room to grow – but by the grace of God we keep being transformed to live this Christian life more and more completely and cheerfully. We do that because we are here together even now in the good news of a promise that we share with those early Christians: that whenever two or three are gathered in Jesus’s name, Christ himself is also here, among us, still making everything new. Amen.
Image: “View up into the canopy of a Bradford Pear blooming along Tranquility Court in the Franklin Farm section of Oak Hill, Fairfax County, Virginia” [cropped], Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
So no, these aren’t the Bradford Pears that are in bloom in front of the south wall of the sanctuary, but they could be cousins.