Acts 4: 32-35
Now 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. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 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.
The early church, in its fledgling days in Jerusalem, thrived through God’s gifts to them. With the testimony of Christ’s resurrection on their lips, they were prepared to go forward and tell all people about the miraculous things that had happened in the Holy City. A story of a ministry cut short by greed and power. A ministry God renewed through the resurrection. Salvation born out of death and reignited into radiant life.
As the Church gathered together, they saw – for maybe the first time – the disparity which had become the norm in Judea. Those with land, opportunity, and influence not only survived but thrived. Meanwhile, those without suffered grievously – unable to have consistent shelter, food or clothing. The life of the average Judean was one of poverty and struggle. Though they toiled they had nothing to show for it.
There is much debate regarding the particulars of first century Judean economics, but the clues we do have point to a relatively depressed system of fiefdoms. Land was leased to farmers, the farmers would work that land and pay with a large percentage of their crop yield. The principle means of commerce were in crops that were not meant to be consumed in their raw form but processed and sold for economic gain. Grains, grapes, large scale fishing ventures – cash crops and exports built for an empire. There were seldom farms meant to support families anymore, only farms meant to feed the grindstone of society.
This volatile system of food production was easily upset. If the rainy season was late in coming or the dry season failed to have a sustainable dewpoint, then crops would fail. The bill for the land would come and the meager produce would go to pay for its use rather than to feed its workers. When there was no contingency to protect the people producing the food or to ensure they received a wage regardless of their output, survival became a matter of chance.
Jesus, in describing the Kingdom of Heaven, pointed to this system and proposed an alternative to this disastrous and predatory system. In a parable, Jesus described workers being called to work at various times throughout the day. (Matt. 20: 1-16) The workers at the end of the day received the salary which they were offered, no qualifications being placed upon how much they produced or when they signed on. While the parable is primarily an illustration of how salvation is offered to all people, at all times, it cannot be denied that this story was meant to point to the actual exploitative processes of his day.
To make up for the economic and resource-based disruption of their era – Roman and Judean society established several ways to provide for the needy. In Judea, people could give money over to the Temple as, “Korban,” to ensure that it was used to care for the poor. (Mark 9:7-13) Likewise, Almsgiving was not uncommon in either society. Roman nobility would sometimes build public gardens to grow fruit and other produce in. These were used both earnestly to help the poor and cynically to appease crowds who opposed Roman rule.
The final method of securing people’s livelihood was in the private societies of Roman provenance. For a small fee, the participant was assured they would receive food and drink – usually a loaf of bread and a few liters of wine – every day. The fees of every member were collected, aggregated, and then used to ensure all people had at least the bare minimum to survive each day.
When Christian communities began to form, they were often mistaken for this last kind of society. The idea manifested that a group that came together to eat and pray regularly must do so through the asking for and receiving of dues. It would not be uncommon for such a group to meet – it would not trip anyone’s radars to see such a thing come to pass.
However, within a few days of being established, the first meeting places in Jerusalem began to see a surge in membership. People poured into the meeting houses and gathered to hear sermons from the apostles. The Spirit of God was on the move, the people were seeing the fruit of their ministry become ripe before their eyes. The light of Christ, now offered to all people, was shining brightly in their midst.
What was it that allowed for this flourishing? How was it that the apostles were able to show Christ so clearly and receive people into community so directly? The three things which are ascribed to the apostles are their testimony, which is about the resurrection, and which was defined by the grace that rested upon them. These three things – testimony, resurrection, and grace – carry much of our Christian life upon themselves.
The apostles gave their testimony, better translated as witness, with, “great power.” The word for power here does not just mean strength but potential for motion. The apostles preached like they expected God to do something with what they were preaching. When we testify about God, that is, tell others what God has done in our life, we ought to do so with the trust that God will use our Testimony. We should be unafraid because Christ, “will not let [the Word] return empty.” (Isaiah 55:11, para.)
We testify God’s work in our life with the ultimate goal of pointing to Christ and Christ’s resurrection. The singular event which we celebrated last week is the axis around which all things turn. We live the life we live now because Christ died and rose again. All gatherings of the faithful depend upon us being able to draw from Christ’s resurrection. We never meet for purely earthly meeting, but for the business of God in this world.
We do this with God’s grace, God’s favor, upon us. As Methodists we believe grace is that power which allows us to be transformed by God’s love. Grace leads us to God, justifies us before God, and sanctifies us into the image of God. Because we have received God’s grace, we become vessels of the same. We do not merely take grace and lock it away within us, but show it to one another, to the world. We act in transformative mercy as we were given it ourselves. The work of God sets the path for our work in the Church.
These three empowering gifts of God did not spring from nowhere. God’s gifts are rendered through the Holy Spirit to the gathered community of God. This community is so close that it was said to be of, “one heart,” sharing all their desires and of, “one soul,” a word here meaning, “their whole being.” The church in Acts 4 saw all members as being equal, but more than equal they saw every individual as part of one singular “body.” The hunger of one sibling was the hunger of all.
An idea we miss in our English translations is how the beginning and end of our scripture are linked. The testimony of the resurrection and the grace of God is given to the community because they were willing to care for one another. Γαρ (Gar,) the linking word between the two ideas is usually used to convey causality. The church grew and succeeded because it had no needy people in it, because those with means took care of those without any. All who owned land sold it to help those who had no food. When was the last time we ever thought of selling someone to help someone else?
The first church in Jerusalem flourished because God blessed their work. God blessed their work because they saw one another as part of the same being. “To care for you is to care for myself.” We too must love one another fully and completely. Where one of us lacks, may another provide. Moreover, let us cast our eyes to our neighbors – of our church and of our homes and of our state and of our nation– and actively seek their welfare. For, if we are to have the powerful testimony of God’s resurrected Christ bring grace into our lives, we must first love one another. Community, not marketing or personality, is the true source of revival. God bless the work and anoint us in love. – Amen.