We are finishing up our worship series, A Wonder-Full Life. We began by looking back at our own life histories. Do we own our possessions, or do they own us? What’s God’s role in all of this as the Creator of the universe. Then, we looked in. How do our attitudes affect the decisions that we make now? Do we think that we have the power and ability to secure our futures. Do we live life aware of how dependent we are on God? Last week we looked out. How do our outer actions reflect our inner attitudes? Do we use our power and assets to keep people down, or do we use them to help lift them up? Do we see the potential in people even when they may be in a period of crisis? Do we actually consider it at all? This week we will be looking with gratitude. It is a way of living with an abundance mentality sure in the knowledge that we are a part of the Kingdom of God.
That is what the very Early Church was trying to do in today’s Scripture passage. We are in Acts 4:32-35. This is right after Pentecost, when the followers of Jesus were given the Holy Spirit. Peter has been bold and stood up in the crowd that was there for the Jewish observance and spoke about everything that had happened. More and more people where joining the group every day. They were starting a new community, a new life in a new world, living in the Kingdom of God.
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
This is a Scripture passage that can make people very nervous. Is she advocating that we sell everything and give it all to the church? Is this communism or socialism? First off, no, and no. However, it has a lot to tell us about attitude, gratitude, and what that looks like.
One of our problems looking at this passage with modern eyes is that we are distrustful of religious fervor. We don’t expect it to last. People are really excited and show sudden enthusiasm, but it seems so superficial on the surface. The next thing we know, the person has returned to their old way of life. We might have even experienced this ourselves.
The word “enthusiastic” literally means filled with God, but in today’s language, we understand it to mean short term high energy that does not result in a long term commitment. (Wil Willimon, Acts: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary, pg 39) If people stay enthusiastic, we don’t trust that either. We associate it with religious fanaticism, which can be dangerous. So, when we see passages like this, we want to skip over them.
If we try to look at it through their eyes, our next question might be, why did the very Early Church come to live together this way? Yes, the Twelve disciples that traveled with Jesus seemed to pool their resources, but certainly weren’t living in a community like this. Why now? A lot of it is expressed in verse 34, “There were no needy persons among them.” Does that sound a little familiar? Hopefully, it does because it was a part of our reading from Deuteronomy earlier. “There need be no poor people among you.” This was a description that everyone would know. They also saw it as a fulfillment of Isaiah 55:1, where God invites:
“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.”
These are describing God’s ideal community. It is not unlike the passage from Revelation 21:4 where it says, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” This also is describing God’s ideal community.
The very Early Church was not the only group around that time to try to live by sharing everything. Are you familiar with the Essenes? Do the Dead Sea Scrolls ring any bells? The Essenes were one of the sects during Jesus’ day. They decided to go live a pure life out in the desert. They were trying to create that ideal community referenced in Deuteronomy. Therefore, they shared their possessions. They started by giving them in trust to the community, and if all went well, they would permanently transfer all of their assets. So the Christians in Jerusalem where doing something similar. (NT Wright, Acts for Everyone, pg 75)
I’m going to invite you to use your imaginations. Imagine that you are there in Jerusalem at that time. You can start by thinking of Jerusalem now, all the strife and controversy, it’s just that the players are different. We have the Roman occupiers, and we have the different sects of Jewish people, Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Sicarii, and more. Some are trying to keep things calm, so things don’t get worse. Some are collaborators getting rich by cooperating with the Romans. We would consider some terrorists, carrying out attacks and assassinations, and some are just people trying to survive to the next day in the midst of all of this.
You are one of the people. Are you a close associate of Jesus? Perhaps you are someone who has heard about the crucifixion and rumors of resurrection, but didn’t actually participate in any of it. Were you one of the crowd in front of Pilate shouting “Crucify him!”? Then, fifty or so days later you heard Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost and were “cut to the heart.” (Acts 2:37) You miraculously believe that it all happened. Jesus is the Messiah, and he was resurrected from the dead. If you think about it, it is a miracle that any of us believe, but that is another sermon.
But, you DO believe, and you want to be a part of this incredible new life, a new community, living it. You deny your old self. You are taking up your cross and carrying it daily (knowing that you are lost on your own without Jesus). You really do give everything over to God, not simply as a mental exercise or in a spiritual way but as a physical reality. Absolute trust. Gratitude for God’s grace. As brothers and sisters in Christ, you are a family. Like a family, you share resources with the other members in need. That doesn’t sounds so crazy, does it?
Is this prescriptive? It is an example for us to follow, or is it an illustration of how anxiously and immediately they expected Christ’s return? Is it an illustration of how they expected to live a Kingdom of God life in this world that is still broken?
Now, over 2000 years later, we know that Jesus did not return in the time-frame they were expecting. We know that when the Apostle Paul set up churches all around the Mediterranean, he did not organize them like the church in Jerusalem, yet they were still expected to be generous with each other. It was not just within one congregation either. Several of Paul’s letters reference a collection from many of the congregations in the Roman world. They were encouraged to help a particular church and people in need, the Jerusalem church.
Throughout this series we have been using the film It’s a Wonderful Life and its characters to help illustrate these different ways of looking at things. Today, we feature the final scene of the movie. George, who had been contemplating suicide, now wants to live again. As he runs through town, he sees all the wonderful people and places that makes it a great place to live. Nothing has changed as far as his financial troubles are concerned. There is still an $8000 deficit in his accounts. A couple of weeks ago we learned that it would be about $110, 430 in today’s money. He’s expecting there to be a warrant for his arrest, and he’s happy about it (as opposed to the alternative).
George arrives home to see the authorities in his living room, and runs to see his kids upstairs. He’s also looking for his wife Mary. Shortly she arrives home. She knows something that George doesn’t. People are coming, all kinds of people. There are all there to help George. Everybody is giving what they can. Some large and some small, but it’s all collected together to provide for the requirements of someone who needs it. The whole thing turns into a giant celebration. George’s brother Harry arrives through a snowstorm and makes a pronouncement.
Harry Bailey: “A toast … to my big brother George. The richest man in town!”
As the angel, Clarence, who had earlier declared…
Clarence: “You see, George, you really had a wonderful life…”
In the movie, George watches all of these people come, people who are grateful for the help that they’ve received, people who are thankful for the opportunity to give back. What is wonderful about this giving is that it is done freely with no strings attached. It is just like God’s grace. Totally free.
When I see this scene next to the one in our Scripture passage, I feel that it is one that strikes a balance between extravagant generosity of living as Kingdom people until Christ returns and living in the meantime. People come together in love, joyfully giving to help. Maybe that’s how we do it be it with our time, our talent, or our treasure.
Over the last several weeks, I have mentioned in letters, articles, and even in sermons just some of the ways that Joseph United Methodist Church offers that extravagant generosity and love of God into our community. I talked about how our church bell on Sunday mornings is a signal to people that God is still alive and active in their world. I mentioned how we host wonderful things for our community be it through A/A and Al-anon meetings or inviting the elementary children of Joseph in to help them with their Christmas shopping. We help people with food scarcity in all kinds of ways be it through the Magic Garden, the Food Bank, the Blessing Box, or even hosting the Fresh Alliance food distribution. Our prayer warriors are something special. Every time that I see a prayer request in my email, I know that there is a powerful group of people praying earnestly. That is so terribly special. I love how we can be the church home for so many. We are welcoming and inviting, so even if someone is only here once a year for their annual family reunion or some other event, they still consider this their church home that week. We are family.
I am grateful for all of the things that we do as the church. I am grateful for each one of you. You do so much to support the mission and ministries of the Church of God in so many wonderful ways. I ask you to continue to do so as we prepare for the new year of 2020. In a few moments, we will be collecting the estimate of giving cards. If you are visiting us this week, there is of course no expectation. For the rest of you, I earnestly ask you to continue your generous support of this church and the many things that it does to spread the love of God in our community and in the world. May it bring you joy!