Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Sharing Everything

Acts 4:32-35[1]

The theme of our lessons from the book of Acts during the Easter season is the story of the early church’s witness—the witness to the resurrection of Jesus and the new life that comes out of it. What they proclaimed was that in Jesus the Christ God was fulfilling all the great promises of restoration and renewal. Specifically, they declared the “wonderful times of refreshment” that were coming “from the presence of the Lord” and “the final restoration of all things” that “God promised long ago through his prophets” (Acts 3:20-21, NLT).

But what made their witness so effective was the combination of their proclamation and their life. One of the most important ways in which the early church lived out this good news was by sharing their possessions with one another. It seems that the early church understood God to be in the process of fulfilling the promise to restore all things and to establish a kingdom of peace and freedom where there would be no need.[2] Like Jesus, they were looking with joy beyond this world to God’s future, where the sorrowing would be comforted, the poor would be supplied with all their needs, and the oppressed would be set free to live the lives they were meant to live.[3] And as a result, the early church were enabled to do something we might think quite radical: they share their possessions so that “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34).

I wonder if that was not a significant factor in the fact that they bore witness to the resurrection of Jesus “with great power” (Acts 4:33). Of course, they had specifically asked God to empower them to speak boldly, and the fact that the place where they met was shaken is meant to indicate that God answered their prayer by filling them with the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:29, 31).[4] But it also seems to me to be no coincidence that in virtually the same breath as Luke tells us that the early church shared their possessions, he also says that “great grace” was upon them and that they bore witness to the resurrection of Jesus with “great power”![5]

We live in a time when many are arguing over the language of the Book of Order. In the midst of our “wrangling about words,” however, it seems to me that we have missed the big picture. In the Book of Order we say that we believe we are called to be “Christ’s faithful evangelists” and that one way in which we are to accomplish this task is by “giving [ourselves] and [our] substance to the service of those who suffer.”[6] That part of the book is not under any kind of debate. But I would venture to say that this is much more central to our calling to be the church than the vast majority of our debates over the constitution of our church. In light of today’s Scripture lesson, I think we would do better to ask how we can fulfill our calling to be “a sign in and for the world of the new reality which God has made available to people in Jesus Christ”[7] with reference to our possessions.

There is a sense in which we do that already. We work to help the needy around us by holding clothing drives and distributing Christmas baskets. But I wonder why we do those good things. If it’s just to try to get something, even new members, we’ve got it backwards. Do those projects come from a compassionate desire to share “ourselves and our substance” or are they just tokens to make us feel better about ourselves.[8] Make no mistake—we are called to “lay down our lives” for one another just as Jesus laid down his life for us (1 John 3:16-24). And that means that we are to “go beyond mere requirements in serving and helping our neighbor, to treat our neighbor's needs as our own, to care passionately for the other's good, and to share what we have.”[9]

We have all kinds of excuses for not practicing the kind of radical sharing that the early church did. Part of the problem is that we’re essentially selfish people, interested in our own welfare.[10] Part of the problem is that we are simply afraid. But the fear that clings and grasps and holds on to everything for dear life is part of the darkness that holds the human race in a death grip. If we’re going to orient our lives toward the welfare of others we have to make a fundamental, radical change. Or perhaps it would be better to say, we have to let ourselves be changed. Like Peter, perhaps we need to be converted–we need to be converted from the fear that wrings its hands over budgets to the joyful compassion that sells possessions and gives the proceeds to help the needy.[11] Only then will compassion for the needy become a way of life for us. Then we can follow the early church points in “a way of living in which everything we have we receive as a gift, … and everything we have is available to others when it is right and good.”[12]



[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/19/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Anthony B. Robinson and Robert W. Wall, Called to be Church: The Book of Acts for a New Day, 74.

[3] Paul Tillich, “The Meaning of Joy,” in The New Being, 150; cf. J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 152-53

[4] Cf. Robinson and Wall, Called to be Church, 72-73, where they point out that “power” in the book of Acts is normally connected with the Holy Spirit.

[5] Cf. Robinson and Wall, Called to be Church, 83, where they say that “this sharing of goods is [not] born our of a command or obligation so much as it is a response to the ‘great grace upon them all’ and to the experience of the living Christ.”

[6] The Book of Order 2007-2009, G-3.0300c3(d).

[7] The Book of Order 2007-2009, G-3.0200, 3.0300(c).

[8] Cf. Jon Sobrino, Where is God? Earthquake, Terrorism, Barbarity, and Hope, 18-20, where he contrasts “aid,” which can be “a way of soothing the conscience” with “solidarity,” which “means not only giving but self-giving” and which “means letting oneself be affected by the suffering of other human beings.”

[9] A Declaration of Faith, PCUS, 1977.

[10] Cf. Jon Sobrino, Where is God?, xxix-xxx; he equates mercy with “‘the other’ is … central” not “myself”; he contrasts this with the “structural selfishness” that seeks “the good life.”

[11] Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out, reprinted in Ministry and Spirituality, 242: “When we say, ‘Please enter—my house is your house, …’ … we have nothing to lose but all to give.”

[12] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 49.

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