Scripture: Acts 4:32-35
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
In the novel, True Believers, Kurt Anderson of public radio’s “Studio 360,” tells the story of a group of college students in the 1960’s. They are passionately against the Vietnam War. Frustrated with protesting and trying to exert political influence while thousands of people are being killed, the group develops a plan to end the war immediately. Yes, they come up with an approach that they are sure will successfully put an end to the Vietnam War. The plan will likely cost the students their futures and very possibly their lives. But they are willing to take the risk to end the killing in Vietnam. In their minds, they are absolutely committed to their principles which call for drastic action. They are true believers and will stop at nothing.
We are in the season of Easter in which we continue to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus the Christ. The crucifixion and resurrection are the defining images of the Christian religion. The resurrection story is associated with key theological concepts that have come to define traditional Christianity: That Jesus is the divine son of God. That humanity is reconciled with God. That there is life after death with God and the promise of heaven for those who believe. These have been defining concepts for Christianity. This is what the resurrection has come to mean for much of the history of the Christian church.
Easter celebrations of the resurrection typically focus on eternal life after our physical death and the promise of heaven. These themes are accompanied by images of new life – eggs, rabbits, the prolific procreators, flowers – life overcoming death.
For the Sundays after Easter, the scripture lessons of the lectionary highlight the resurrection appearances of Jesus: Jesus feeding his friends. Jesus forgiving Peter. Jesus meeting his friends on the road to Emmaus. Jesus’ encounter with doubting Thomas. Jesus sending his disciples out into the world to teach and baptize in his name. Jesus breathing peace upon his frightened friends. These are all stories that encourage us to have faith and be true believers.
Christianity has taken the content of that belief to be that Jesus is God, and that he has opened the door for believers to go to heaven to be with God after they die.
The scripture that we heard this morning from Acts is also assigned for the Sunday after Easter, but I am sure that the majority of preachers choose to preach on doubting Thomas and Jesus breathing peace onto his disciples rather than this iconoclastic story from Acts. Well, we got the peace last week. Now, we are delving into this more controversial story.
We are told about the life of a community of followers of Jesus that has formed after his death. These are true believers. We are told that, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” How inspiring. Except, they held all of their belongings and property in common. There was no private ownership of any possessions. There was not a needy person among them because they shared all they had. This communal economic arrangement was a result of their belief in the resurrection. It was evidence of their testimony. It was the manifestation of the great grace that was upon them all. The abandonment of private property and individual ownership. Hm. That’s not our typical image or symbol of the resurrection. You probably didn’t know the money bag on the front of the bulletin was a symbol of the resurrection!
There are many reasons that preachers will avoid preaching on this text especially after Easter. This is a season for spiritual matters: Heaven and the next life. Doubt and faith. Matters that are theoretical and theological. This Acts text is very material and practical. And it is much more comfortable to keep the discussion to abstractions and not get down to the nitty gritty like what you do with your money. This Acts story is too messy for the ethereal resurrection season.
Another reason preachers avoid this text is because we live in a time of great greed. We are surrounded by the message that we should be rich. Being rich is good. We idolize wealth and the wealthy. The message from Acts is completely contrary to the culture around us and who wants to stir that up especially when churches need money to function? The last thing you would want to do as a pastor is read this bit from Acts and alienate your wealthy members.
And, there is no avoiding that this Acts passage smacks of Communism. It is an echo of, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” a phrase of Louis Blanc made popular by Karl Marx. Most agree that communism has failed so no one wants to associate Christianity and the church with that failed economic system. This is a season to celebrate the success and triumph of the church and not get mixed up in the failings of communism.
I asked a fundamentalist friend about this Acts passage. She is always quoting the Bible and taking it literally. So, I asked if all the people in her church sold all their possessions and held everything in common. She explained to me that that was what God wanted for that particular congregation at that time. That was intended for them. It didn’t apply to the rest of us today. Her response left me wondering why the admonition to the Corinthians that women keep their heads covered in church applies to her church today, but not the communal ownership teaching from Acts? Why one thing but not another?
On Easter, if you preach, “Jesus is risen. Sell all that you have and give your money to the church and trust that you will be taken care of by the faith community,” the church will be empty or the pastor will be Baker-acted. Preach, “Jesus is risen, and you, too, will have eternal life in heaven,” the pews are filled. It’s a belief that doesn’t really require us to have much skin in the game. If it doesn’t happen, oh well. We’ll be dead anyway. Basically, we accept the view that you can have my afterlife, but not my house and my car.
In an individualistic, capitalist culture based on the ownership of private property, this story from Acts just doesn’t register. That was for “them.” Maybe we think those people were all poor and it is easy for someone poor to go along with selling everything because they aren’t giving up much and they actually may stand to gain. But not all the people in the Jerusalem Christian community were poor. Were they all so altruistic? No. We are told there was arguing over who will serve the meals to the widows, etc. Were they so egalitarian? No. There was competition between those who were Jewish and those who were Hellenists. They had their pecking order and status ladder just as we do today. This is why this story from Acts speaks with such great power. The story is clear that the power of the resurrection is what makes the people take these drastic economic measures. The power of the resurrection leads them to sell everything, something they would never have voluntarily done in the past. The power of the resurrection causes them to abandon all previously held notions about money and ownership. The resurrection twists them around, turns them inside out, and swings them upside down, in their everyday, very material lives. Here and now in this world.
Yes, we may associate the power of the resurrection with getting us into heaven. We’ll see. But this story tells us that the power of the resurrection does not stop there.
The power of the resurrection is not only stronger than death, it is stronger than free enterprise. It is stronger than capitalism. It is stronger than greed. It is stronger than individualism. It is stronger than consumerism. It is stronger than private ownership. It is stronger than selfishness.
Acts gives us an image of the resurrection that has the power to completely transform us in the context of our flesh and blood lives today.
The transformation that is portrayed in Acts is a testimony to the resurrection. The resurrection has compelled the true believers to take action that they never would have dreamed of. It has caused them to behave in entirely new, unexpected ways.
So what might the resurrection look like today?
A living wage for all, world wide?
Clean air, water, and reverence for the environment?
Universal access to healthcare?
No homelessness, poverty, or hunger?
An end to racism and prejudice of all kinds?
The truth is that ideals always have economic implications. If we think we are true believers and it doesn’t involve our money, we are deceived, because money symbolizes power, status, trust, and loyalty. If the resurrection doesn’t mess with our bank account then we probably believe in a resurrection that is relatively small and remote, and not the cataclysmic transformation portrayed in the New Testament.
For those first true believers, the resurrection was a community-evoking experience that completely changed the way they lived, including their economic assumptions and identity. They were transformed right to the core. Inside and out. Here and now.
The resurrection is about much more than heaven in the next life. It’s about heaven on earth. May we be true believers. Amen.