Sunday, April 8, 2018

Sermon for April 8th on Acts 4:32-35

Today is the second Sunday of the season of Easter. In the Christian church Easter isn’t just one day to sing Easter hymns and eat chocolate. Easter is a season and it lasts for fifty days, from Easter Sunday to the Day of Pentecost. This is the longest special season in the entire Church year, and it bears witness to the fact that the Resurrection of Jesus is the most important part of our faith, the part that everything else is based on. So we celebrate it for fifty days, reading the scriptures and singing the hymns and praying the prayers that testify to our belief that Jesus is alive and that he is Lord of all.

Easter is also a traditional time for baptisms. The early Christians of course were all converts; they could remember a time when they did not know the light of Jesus. They used dramatic language for their conversion; they said they’d passed from darkness to light, or that their old life had ended on the cross with Jesus, and their new life had been born out of his empty tomb. And so they went down into the waters of baptism – like a drowning in the death of Jesus – and they came up again, wet through and gasping for breath, beginning a brand new life as followers of their risen Lord.

Baptism in the early church was never just about individuals in isolation. It certainly had absolutely nothing to do with giving a baby a name and then sending her on her way to live a life completely separate from the Christian fellowship of the church. We Christians believe that our faith is a community thing: ‘Webelieve in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord’. We pray a community prayer: ‘OurFather in heaven, hallowed be your name…’. We’re told to love one another, encourage one another, be patient with one another, and lay down our lives for one another. None of this makes any sense if we never take part in the community. Baptism is about joining the family of Jesus.

What’s that family all about?

In the Book of Acts, Doctor Luke – the author – gives us some lovely little summaries of the life of the early church. I want to be careful about using the word ‘church’ here, because when we hear it we think about buildings, and bishops, and robes, and organizations, and professional clergy, and so on. But the early church had none of that: no buildings, no professional employees, no canons and constitutions, no five-year plans. The early church was a loose association of little house churches, scattered around the eastern Mediterranean. Almost all their missionaries and pastors were volunteers, and everyone who joined it did so because they’d been gripped by something amazing – something that had changed their lives and given them a joy and hope they’d never imagined possible. That joy and hope had taken over the central place in their lives. It was more important than their homes and possessions, more important than their families and friends, more important than worldly success or wealth, more important even than life or death.

What was that ‘something’? Peter announced it on the Day of Pentecost, to a crowd that probably included people who had taken part in the murder of Jesus a few weeks before: “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). 

In other words: ‘You thought he was a madman, a religious fanatic, a blasphemer, a man who was leading people astray. And you thought he was a danger to the Roman empire with all his talk about the Kingdom of God coming in power. So you joined together, you high priests and leaders of Israel; you got the Romans on your side, and you raised a gang of thugs, and you took him and crucified him. And you laughed at him while he was dying, and asked him where God was now, if God loved him so much. And then you watched as his loved ones put him in a tomb, and you posted a guard on the tomb, just to make sure nothing untoward happened.

‘We thought he was finished too. We’d followed him all the way from Galilee; we believed he was the King God was sending to set his people free. We were totally shattered when he was killed; we thought we’d been wrong about him. How could God allow the true Messiah, the true King, to be defeated? The only conclusion we could come to was that he’d been wrong, and we’d been wasting our time.

‘So we were ready to give up. But then on Sunday morning some of our women went to the tomb and found it empty. The body was gone! Not only that, but they said they’d seen a vision of angels who said he was alive! We didn’t believe them at first, but then one of them said she’d actually seen him. Later that day a few more of us saw him too; we couldn’t believe our eyes! That evening a group of us were all together in one place and he appeared to us, showed us the wounds in his hands and side, and told us he was sending us out, just as the Father had sent him.

‘And so it went on. Our friends kept seeing him; we never knew when he might show up. Sometimes we saw him in ones and twos. Once there were a group of five hundred of us at once. Sometimes we saw him in Galilee; other times back in Jerusalem. Those meetings went on for six weeks, until he told us they were going to come to an end; he was going to ascend to heaven to take the place of authority beside his Father, and he was going to send the Holy Spirit to give us power to be his witnesses and to tell the whole world that he is Lord of all’.

That’s what those early Christians experienced and believed. For the earliest ones, it was a matter of eyewitness testimony: they had seen the physical body of Jesus, raised from the dead. For those who came after, it was less clear-cut: they believed the evidence given them by the eyewitnesses, partly because they continued to see in the early church some of the miracles and healings that Jesus had performed. And when they committed themselves to Jesus, they knew within themselves that they had been given the gift of the Holy Spirit to connect them with the risen Jesus.

What is this community that we’ve been baptized into? What’s it meant to be all about? Looking at our text for today from Acts 4:32-35, let me suggest three things:

First, even today, it’s a community that gives testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. This is the defining truth of Christianity. Writing to the little Christian house churches in the Greek city of Corinth twenty-five years later, St. Paul put it like this: ‘If Christ has not been raised, our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain’ (1 Corinthians 15:14). If Jesus has not been raised from the dead – if he is not alive today as Lord of all – then we’re wasting our time this morning. If all we’re about is the golden rule, then we don’t need to be Christians; even atheists can believe in the golden rule. It doesn’t define Christianity. Christianity is defined by the conviction that love is stronger than death: that Jesus loved his enemies and prayed for those who hated him, and after they killed him God vindicated him by raising him from the dead.

That means we’re people of hope. We’re people who have no need to fear death, because we know it’s only temporary. ‘Sleeping in Jesus’ – that’s what they called it in the early church! Sleep is temporary; the sleepers are going to wake up! The early Christians had seen one of them wake up – their beloved Lord Jesus Christ - and they had heard him promise that those who believed in him would live, even though they died. So we can face the moment of our death cheerfully, without fear, because we believe the promise Jesus made to us.

And this makes a difference in our daily lives. Because we believe in the resurrection we’re people of hope, and because we’re people of hope we don’t give up on hopeless people. Sometimes we feel hopeless ourselves, but we don’t even give up on ourselves! If God can raise people from the dead, then there is always hope in God. So we’re called to be a community of stubbornhope: never giving up on others, or ourselves, because God doesn’t give up on us.

This is a community that announces loud and clear to all the world that we believe Jesus is alive from the dead and Lord of all. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that this belief holds us together. Luke says in verse 32: ‘Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul’.

On Good Friday I felt this in a powerful way. I hope you were here on that day. If you weren’t, then do yourselves a favour and come next year! Toward the end of the service we brought in a wooden cross and stood it at the front here. Then we all came up and made a rough circle around the cross, fifty or sixty of us. Standing around the cross, we prayed our prayers for the whole world. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I was close to tears in that moment. I have rarely felt the reality of the family of God so strongly as I did then. We were younger people and older people, long time members of this church and newer folks. Some raised as Anglicans, many not. Some better off, some not. Some politically liberal, some conservative. But at that moment, what we had together in Jesus was more important than anything that divided us. We were ‘one in heart and soul’.

We baptized Christians are meant to live this out. Being a Christian is not something you can do by yourself. It never has been. Jesus called people to become his disciples, and that meant they had to join a community. This community meets together to pray and learn and support each other. It’s not meant to be a community of strangers who nod at each other on Sunday and then go their separate ways. We’re called to get to know each other, to let our guard down, to offer help and accept help. One of the most common phrases in the New Testament is the phrase ‘one another’. And it doesn’t say ‘ignore one another’! No: ‘Love one another’. ‘Encourage one another’. ‘Be patient with one another’. ‘Bear with one another in love’.

So first, this is a community that announces to the world that we believe Jesus is alive from the dead and Lord of all. And second, this is a community that is called to be one in heart and soul. Third, this is a community of grace. The last phrase of verse 33 says ‘great grace was upon them all’.

There’s always a problem when you try to translate words from one language into another. There’s never an exact equivalent! But we do our best, and we have to remind ourselves that there’s more to Bible words than meets the eye. So ‘grace’ in Greek is ‘charis’. Sometimes it’s defined as ‘unconditional love’: love you don’t have to earn, don’t have to measure up to. You don’t have to deserve it; it comes to you as a free gift. Grace is a defining characteristic of God, and Jesus lived it out in his daily life. He didn’t reject sinners; he embraced them. He ate and drank with outcasts and spent time with people everyone else rejected. ‘Grace’, says Philip Yancey, ‘means that there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more, and nothing you can do to make God love you less. God already loves you infinitely, and nothing will ever change that’.
So to say, ‘great grace was upon them all’ can mean ‘they were gripped by a sense of God’s indestructible, unconditional love for every single one of them – rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, men or women, holy people and less-than-holy people’. And that would be true.

But the word ‘charis’ is also connected to the idea of a gift – a free gift. And so you could also translate it as ‘generosity’. ‘Great generosity was upon them all’. In other words, they knew themselves to be the recipients of God’s generosity, and they also knew themselves to be called to be generous to one another.

This generosity was intensely practical. Luke says,
‘…no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…There 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. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need’ (Acts 4:32b, 34-35).

Now, we should not take Luke totally literally here. These verses make it sound as if this was a rule among the early Christians: if you want to join our community, first of all you’ve got to sign over all your possessions to us. But even a glance at the next few verses shows that this isn’t strictly true. In the next chapter a couple named Ananias and Sapphira lie to the community; they sell some land and bring the money to the apostles, but they keep some of it back for themselves. Peter confronts Ananias about it. He says, ‘While the land remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal?’ (5:4). In other words, ‘No one was forcing you to give everything, Ananias? So why did you lie and say you had?’

What is clear is that these early Christians sat lightly to their possessions, and made them available to one another, especially to the needy. In Acts 4:36-37 we read about a Christian called Joseph – the apostles gave him a nickname, ‘Barnabas’, which means ‘Son of Encouragement’ He’s listed here as an example of what those early followers of the Way practiced; he was apparently a man of property, but he sold a field and brought the proceeds to the apostles, and they used it to care for the poor.

This of course is very consistent with the teaching of Jesus. Jesus told us not to store up for ourselves treasures on earth. He told us to live simply and give to those who need help. Years later, when St. Paul was reflecting on this, he remembered the Old Testament story from the time of Moses, of how God provided bread for the people to eat in the wilderness. He took a scripture verse from that time and applied it to the little Christian community in Corinth: ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little’ (Exodus 16:18). That’s the Christian ideal.

But it’s not a rule; it’s a freewill gift we offer to each other, and to our sisters and brothers in other parts of the world who suffer so much more than we do. In the same passage in 2 Corinthians Paul says, ‘Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver’ (2 Corinthians 9:7).

Let’s sum this up. We gather together this morning as a community of baptized Christians. This morning we will baptize a new member, Shiloh. She’s only a year old and has no idea what’s going on today, but her parents and godparents know what’s going on. They know that this isn’t just something magical we’re doing for her. This is about the grace of God coming into her life, giving her what she needs to grow as a follower of Jesus and a part of this community of St. Margaret’s church.

This is a community that ‘gives testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus’. We believe that he is alive and that he is Lord of all. No other Lord can compete with him – no president, no king or prime minister, no celebrity or business leader or media personality. The last word goes to our Lord Jesus. He is alive, and so there’s no need to fear.

Second, this is a community that is united by our belief in the risen Jesus. There are plenty of other things we’re divided about, but on this one thing we are united, or should be anyway: we believe that Jesus is alive and has given us his Spirit, and the Spirit draws us together as one. We are ‘of one heart and soul’.

Third, this is a community marked by great grace, or great generosity. We’re thankful for God’s generosity to us, and we’re learning every day to be generous to one another, and to let others be generous to us. Our goal ought to be these simple words of Luke: ‘There was not a needy person among them’ (v.34). We’re not there yet, because we’re not fully converted yet. Some of us would have to be honest and say that sometimes we don’t even want to be there yet! But then we come together again, and we hear the words of Jesus speaking to our hearts and we know what we’re being called to: a life of joyful generosity.

This is what it means to be people of the Resurrection. This is what it means to be baptized Christians. This is what you sign up for when you get baptized, or when you bring a child to be baptized. May this be true for us flawed and imperfect followers of Jesus at St. Margaret’s in 2018, just as it was true for the flawed and imperfect followers of Jesus in Jerusalem in the early 30s A.D. Amen.

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