Matthew T. Phillips

Stuck Together (Acts 4:32-35)

The Second Sunday of Easter (B)
Boger City United Methodist Church
Lincolnton, North Carolina

32Now 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. 33With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34There 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. 35They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Acts 4:32-35 NRSV

Communal living

Sometimes the Bible makes you wonder why you joined church. If only you’d read today’s scripture first, you might have had some idea that people would all the time be asking you to give money and telling you how to spend what you had left. Like the small print in the newspaper, nobody reads Acts. But we should; Acts is our story, except that the most aggressive pledge drive we could imagine wouldn’t compare to today’s scripture.

Following this passage, we meet Ananias and Sapphira. You just know they’re going to be bad when you hear their names. Ananias sells a piece of property, so to fill the expectations of the church, he brings the proceeds to the community. But he keeps a little for himself (with his wife’s full knowledge, Luke is careful to note). Peter finds out, and the Holy Spirit fries them both on the spot. Really. It’s right there in the Bible.

Why such a drastic ending to the story? Not because Ananias and Sapphira chose to give less than everything to the church, but because they lied to God about what they had to give.

So what does the scripture mean for us? When we read about the early church and hear about common property and distribution by need, it sounds like communism. There are some distinct differences from communism—the members joined the community voluntarily, they participated in normal business activities outside the community, and they shared their resources with the poor. Still, though, I’ll bet none of you are ready to sell the house and move into the sanctuary here, and I’m certainly not either. We’re in good company. The main purpose for this communal life was care of the poor, and from Paul’s writings we know that the church did not continue in this communal pattern and came up with other mechanisms to care for the poor. During the whole history of the church, only a very few groups have ever tried to live communally. The obvious example in modern times are monastic communities, although their structures are changing as we speak. In this country most attempts at communal living have been among fringe groups like the Shakers and the Oneidaites and more recently groups of civil rights believers like those at Koinonia Farms in Americus, Georgia.

We shouldn’t dismiss something in the Bible just because it doesn’t happen any more. When we break from biblical norms, it should be with some fear and trepidation, and certainly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In the context of the book of Acts, though, this passage is not there to tell us that we are supposed to live in communes. It’s main function is to show us how close the early church was. They were a tight-knit community to the point that they even shared all of their possessions with each other. They were all new in the faith, and the common excitement in the spirit and the promise of the coming Kingdom of God was sufficient to sustain them through the difficulties of living that close together.

Over time, the church has discerned that we do not need to live together and share goods in common. But we aren’t totally different from the early church of Acts either. We still try to care for the poor as one of our most important responsibilities, and our faith is still expressed in a church community.

Being Church

We don’t live communally any more, but this passage still has a lot to tell us about what it means to be the church. The scripture says first that “those who believed were of one heart and soul.” I led a Disciple Bible Study group this year, and one of the themes that kept coming up was that the covenant established through Jesus Christ meant that we no longer had to follow the huge number of laws found in the Old Testament, but that frequently the requirements of the new covenant were deeper:

43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….

Matthew 5:43-44 NRSV

It’s a lot harder to really love your enemies than to follow a bunch of laws about what you can eat. In the same way, learning that we should be “of one heart and soul” should be considerably more daunting than the possibility of living in a commune. This means caring for each other on a much deeper level. Being the church is about having the heart and soul of our neighbors: loving each other as we love ourselves, and knowing that our souls are all tied up together so that if you aren’t right with God, I cannot be either.

In the central verse of the scripture, we learn that it is not living as a community that brings God’s favor on the early church, but rather what they do as a community:

33With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

Acts 4:33 NRSV

Because they had a unity of purpose and supported each other at such a deep level, they had great power to share the gospel, and through their life together and their proclamation of the gospel, they felt God’s grace.

Some parts of the communal living message are pretty important for us to hear too. The believers brought all that they had and “laid it at the apostles’ feet.” That challenges us all, laity and ministers alike. We as laity hear and are challenged to consider how much of ourselves we give to the church. Do we really shape our lives to the gospel and to this group of people were we have a promise of love and God’s Spirit rests with us? We as ministers are challenged to remember that people do bring a tremendous amount of themselves to the church and that we must be good stewards of the trust that is placed in the church through us.

Wrestling for a blessing

A lot of those communal groups I talked about earlier got that way because they read the story of Acts and were drawn to a compelling idea: they wanted to be part of something that had the grace and power of the early church. But we’ve read ahead a little bit. We know that there will be cost to living so close together. In the next verses, we learn about Ananias and Sapphira. Later on some of the earliest fights within the church will be caused the this communal system of sharing resources.

The great power and the presence of God’s grace in the early church is something that we all know in some way or another, else you wouldn’t keep coming back to this place. It shows through in our life together from time to time, and we can hardly be blamed for wanting more of it, but it turns out to be hard to get. To be that kind of church, we may not have to share all our possessions, but we do have to struggle with the temptations to look after ourselves first, to take care of our own house and leave our neighbors’ problems to our neighbors, and to build up treasures for ourselves here in the mothy, rusty world we call home.

To get the blessing of the grace and power the early church knew and to break through to the daybreak of God’s promise for the church, we have to wrestle with the strange notions of our independence all through the night.

After Easter

This time in our Christian calendar is about just that struggle. Our gospel lesson today was the story of Thomas, who has had the unfortunate label “doubting Thomas” ever since he had the gall to want to see proof of Jesus’ resurrection, as if all of us wouldn’t like to see some proof for ourselves. Thomas was not a person of questionable dedication. When Jesus wanted to go to Jerusalem to see Lazarus, the disciples were wary.

8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”

John 11:8 NRSV

It’s hard to tell exactly who they were concerned about. Jesus had not gotten a good reception there so might be in danger, but they hadn’t forgotten that they were going to be standing next to him, and stones thrown at Jesus might well strike them instead. But poor old doubting Thomas speaks up:

16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

John 11:16 NRSV

The disciple who had been willing to follow Jesus to death had trouble believing that Jesus had come back from the dead. He was having trouble wrestling with the idea that faith could not always be grounded in individual experience. After Easter, faith is found in the community.

Having one heart and soul with the gathering of Christian disciples means that we can perceive the experience of the Holy Spirit in each other, and our faith can be nourished by the witness of our companions.

This is the first of six Sundays between Easter and Pentecost. This is the time when we wrestle with what it means to live in the presence of the risen Christ and we look for the coming of God’s grace through the Spirit. It is hard—nearly impossible—to get used to the idea of worshipping one who has died and risen again. To try to believe such a thing on our own might be hopeless. Thomas eventually got to put his fingers in Christ’s wounds and it became easy for him to believe. Far be it from me to say that such a thing will not happen for you. But until it does, we go through the struggle of living together—sharing each other’s heart and soul—so that we might have faith for others when they are weak and rest on the foundation of faith laid by those around us when we are weak ourselves.

The psalmist sings of this great blessing:

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! … It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

Psalm 133:1, 3 NRSV

Life together is not easy, but the struggle to be the church is what completes the picture as God’s kingdom breaks into this world like morning after a long dark night.