Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 1-2:2
I don’t know about you, but I like my stuff. My cars, my TV, my books, my lawnmower, my kitchen gadgets, my Xbox, even my cats. And what I like most about my stuff is that it’s my stuff. I feel the same way about my personal space and my personal time. It’s mine and I get to decide what I do with it. Sure, sometimes people lay claim to some of my time and some of my stuff, and that’s just part of life; but eventually I draw a line and say, “No. You can have that, but this is mine and mine alone. You can’t have it.” And I don’t think I’m unusual in this. We all get possessive about our possessions.
So when I read this story about the early church in book of Acts, I tense up.
First of all, it sounds like a fantasy world. The whole group of them are of one heart and soul. Really? No one claimed private ownership of any possessions. Not even like one guy? Everything they owned was held in common. You mean literally everything? Everyone who owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. Seriously? It was distributed to each as any had need. You mean people could just take whatever they needed? There was not a needy person among them. Not even one? Really? There is no way that all of this is real life. I mean, come on. Can you imagine this happening anywhere in the world today?
And to be clear, this is not communism or socialism as we know it. This is not compulsory. This is voluntary. The believers simply band together to take care of their neighbors. No one is forced to do anything. They just do it.
Even if this sort of volunteer communalism was attainable here in the real world, I can’t say I’d want to be a part of it. I mean, I like Joe, but I don’t want him coming into my house to drink my hard earned and precious IPAs. And I like Mike but I don’t want him wandering in to try on my cowboy boots whenever he wants. And I like Carole, but I don’t want her crashing on my couch and playing video games until 3am. And I doubt that any of you want me to wander into your home at some ungodly hour to use your toothbrush or see if you get better cable channels than I do. And if we feel this way, then we can bet that our brothers and sisters in Christ 2,000 years ago probably would have been inclined to feel the same way.
So what’s going on here? If we’re going to take the scriptures seriously, if we’re going to believe that this ancient community of Christians actually did what Luke says they did, then we’re going to need some more information.
Earlier in Acts, before this remarkable little community is established, Jesus is resurrected and appears to lots of disciples before ascending into heaven. Then, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the disciples, essentially equipping them to carry on Jesus’ ministry in the world. Jesus spent his ministry demonstrating for his disciples a new way of life, and then, after his resurrection, he gives them the power to start living in this new way. And, perhaps more miraculously than the events of Pentecost, within a month or so, these early Christians actually start living in the new way. All with a little help from the Holy Spirit.
Of course, not every early church community was in quite as good shape as this one in Acts. If you read Galatians or Corinthians you’ll see pretty quickly that the early church was just as messed up as the contemporary church. Whenever people talk about “getting back to the way the early church did it” I have to laugh. Because the early church was far from perfect.
This was true for the community to which John writes his first letter. They’re arguing with each other and so John tries to remind them what it means to be a community. He says, “we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have community with us.” So John shares the gospel with these people because he’s interested in being in community with them. Then he says, “and truly our community is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” John believes that he and his people are already in community with God. So if the people reading John’s letter enter into a relationship with John, then they automatically enter into relationships with God. Interesting.
John continues, “If we say that we have community with [God] while we are walking in darkness, we lie.” He goes on, “But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.” Wait, what? That’s not what I was expecting John to say.
I expected John to say that if we continue to walk in darkness then we have no relationship with God; but if we walk in the light then we’ll have a relationship with God. But that’s not what he says. He says that if we walk in darkness we have no relationship with God, but if we walk in the light, then we have a relationship with each other. Interesting.
For John, all relationships are connected. God is in relationship with you who is in relationship with me who is in relationship with my neighbor who is in turn in relationship with God. We are all one big community. And the center of that community, is God. That’s what John wants to drive home to these people. The church is meant to be a community of people gathered around God. And so to be faithful followers of Jesus, me must be in relationship with God and with each other.
This wisdom from 1 John can help us better understand the strange behavior of this community in the book of Acts. The people in this Acts community are able to live in such harmony because they have Jesus at the center of their community. They know that to be in relationship with God is to be in relationship with their neighbor, and to be in relationship with their neighbor is to be in relationship with God. And so they started caring for their neighbors as though Jesus dwelt inside each of them, which, by the power of the Holy Spirit, he does. You see, when my eyes are on Jesus, suddenly my comfort is a lot less important than your survival, suddenly my wants are a lot less important than your needs. I don’t think that the Acts community found this sort of selflessness to be easy; I bet it was really hard. But with Jesus as the center of their community, they could do it.
The reason so many churches and Christian communities struggle to live the way the people in the Acts church lived is that we’re focused on the wrong thing. Rather than having community for Jesus’ sake, we have community for community’s sake. We know that God calls us to be in community with each other, but so often we stop there, thinking that community in and of itself is the highest good. God calls us into community so that we can do other things. We stop short, thinking that our existence as a community is most important, and then we end up focusing not on Jesus, but on the community itself. When we make the community our focus, things like the building and the budget and worship attendance become the topics of highest concern. But when we make Jesus our focus then things like evangelism, faithful worship, and caring for the poor become the topics of highest concern.
To say it a different way, communities that focus on themselves will inevitably have to worry about how to keep the doors open, the lights on, and the heater running. Communities that focus on Jesus will never have to worry about those things because they’ll be focused on doing the good work Jesus calls them to do.
I started off this sermon by saying that I think the selfless community of the Acts church is impossible and I don’t want anything to do with it. Without Jesus, that’s true. Such a remarkable community is only possible if God is at the center of it. And you know what, there actually are some communities out there that are doing it.
A good example is The Simple Way community in the Kensington Neighborhood of Philadelphia. The Simple Way started when a small group of people decided they wanted to try to live like the community in Acts. They bought an abandoned building in the run-down Kensington neighborhood and started living with all things in common. Word got out and more and more people came to live in Kensington. Eventually the community had to buy more buildings to house all the newcomers.
That was over twenty years ago. Now The Simple Way is a major presence in the Kensington neighborhood. Their main project is to operate a food pantry, but they still open their doors to anyone and everyone, helping in whatever ways they can and providing connections to other agencies when they can’t. They’re not a church, but they hold monthly worship services as a neighborhood, sometimes with hundreds of people in attendance.
Their guiding principle is to live the way Jesus taught us to live, namely, to love their neighbor. It’s called The Simple Way because it’s that simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Those who would be a part of that community have to give up and sacrifice their self-centeredness.
I see glimmers of Christ-centered community here, too. I see it when our food pantry and clothing closet volunteers give up so much of their own time to care for the needs of our community. I see it in the way the All Saints Fund seeks to support worthy causes in the area. I see it in organizations like the MACC and HHHO who distribute food to the needy in Beaver Springs and Beavertown. I saw it last Sunday out on 522 after a young man was struck by a minivan while riding his bike. Members of our church community and the local community, some of whom did not know him at all, rushed to his aid and very likely saved his life.
It is nothing short of the love of Jesus when we step in and help someone who needs help. After all, that is what Jesus did for us. And that is who we are called to be, a community that exists not for the sake of ourselves, but for the sake of Jesus and our neighbors. The selflessness of the Acts community seems so impossible to me because I put myself at the center of my community. But with Christ as the center of our community, we can do anything—even the impossible.