The book of the “Acts of the Apostles” is a unique book within the new Testament. There are four accounts of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection. And there are many letters written by Paul and other church leaders to fledgling Christian communities all around the known world. But the Book of Acts is different. Its topic is the early church at its beginning.
Jesus ascends into heaven in the first chapter, and then we have the stories of the birth and growth of the church. Like the Gospels, its form is historical narrative, and its author is likely the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke. And though the stories in Acts are about “what happened” among the first Christians, their purpose is greater than simply to record a historical moment. In fact, like in the Gospels, historical accuracy may often be discarded in order to relate to the readers (the next generations of the church) what was the purpose and mission and character of being the church together at the beginning.
Today’s few verses, from the end of the second chapter, are some of my favourite verses in Acts. They are a beautiful description of the Christian community as it is meant to be. At this point, the church has only just been formed. Chapter two begins with the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The followers of Jesus are filled with God’s powerful Spirit and equipped to share the Good News with all the people of the world. Next, Peter preaches a sermon, and some 3000 people are “cut to the heart” and join the community of Jesus’ followers.
And then we have the lovely description of the quickly growing community. Day by day, they worshipped together in the temple. Day by day, they grew more numerous. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers. And they shared everything in common — not only common beliefs and practices — but they sold their possessions and distributed the proceeds to all who had need. There was no one who was poor or rich. There was no one in need, because they held everything in common.
It’s that last part of the description that seems to be the most difficult for the church in later years to emulate. We live in a society in which private ownership is the norm and the expectation. We spend a great deal of time and energy accumulating “things,” and our children learn the word “mine” very early in life.
Picture the place where you live for a moment. Close your eyes, if you want to, and go into your house or your apartment, and look around at all your stuff… Furniture, books, games, nick nacks, appliances big and small, clothes, computers, TV’s, gadgets of all kinds, cars, bikes, tools, and so much more… things shoved in closets and cupboards that you haven’t used in years. And all these things belong to you…
All of these things… that you can keep, or sell, or give away, or share. If nothing else, perhaps the scriptures today might call us to reconsider how we are stewards of all these things. Perhaps we can begin to think about our stuff as gifts — gifts to be used for the good of all, and not so much as our personal, private property.
The same person who wrote this morning’s description of the early church also wrote a wonderful description of the purpose and goal of Jesus’ ministry. In the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, the author of Luke and Acts has Jesus stand up to read from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth.
Jesus proclaims: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” And then Jesus basically says, “That scripture is about me. That’s what my life and ministry is about. It’s a Jubilee — the year of the Lord’s favour.”
The idea of a Jubilee is a redistribution of land and goods. For 49 years, people work away at their occupations, and some get rich, and others struggle. But when the 50th year comes, things are evened out again. Wealth is shared. Debts are forgiven. The poor are raised up, and the rich are brought down a few notches.
In the course of Jesus’ ministry, we can see this kind of thing happening. Jesus embodied the love and grace of God for all who were poor, or outcast, or rejected by the rest of society. Jesus challenged the rich and the powerful, and called them to radical generosity towards the poor. The coming kingdom that Jesus announced was once in which there would be no more poverty or oppression or hunger or need of any kind. And here, in the Book of Acts, we get a glimpse of what that kingdom will look like.
I don’t know if there was ever a Christian community as idyllic as the one described in the second chapter of Acts. It’s hard to imagine that a community made up of human people could be as happy, and healthy, and conflict-free as the one described here. With over 3000 people in the group, how could there be none who slipped through the cracks and got left out or didn’t have their needs met? With so many people to contend with, wouldn’t there have been some arguing, some bad feelings, or some lack of good will?
The first Christians, like us, were human. So I imagine that this little description of the church is less of a description, and more of a prescription. It’s a vision for what the church WILL be when God’s kingdom arrives in its fullness. And it’s a prescription for what the church can STRIVE TO BE more and more, each and every day.
Verse 42 states succinctly the activities of the first congregation, and the following verses go on to give more detail. The Christians devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers. These are all things that continue to be our focus in Christian churches today.
We devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching as we study the scriptures, and as we interpret them for our lives in bible studies and sermons. We enjoy fellowship together as we gather each Sunday, during the coffee hour after worship, and in various groups, at special events, and even during committee meetings as we carry out the work of the church. We break bread together as we share the Sacrament of Holy Communion, but also when we gather for pot luck suppers, Women’s League lunches, snack times with the youth and kids’ club, and even when members of the church invite one another to share meals in each other’s homes.
As a church, we are not meant to be just a collection of people who share some common beliefs about God, and who enjoy worship in the Reformed Tradition. According to the model set up for us in Acts, we are to be a community of care and friendship. This is not a place for anonymity, but a community of loving caring relationships in which we are striving not to let anyone slip through the cracks, or get left out, or experience need.
I know that many people here have experienced St. Andrew’s to be just such a community. When you’ve been sick, there have been people calling and visiting and helping. When you’ve been lonely or grieving, your friends from church have helped you through. When you’ve had questions or struggled with faith, there have been people here ready to talk to you, or just to listen. And often, when there has been a physical or financial need among us, our church has tried to meet that too.
I remember one Sunday morning a few years ago, when a member of our church gave not only some money, but also her own winter coat to a visitor who was obviously in need. It seemed like a very generous and thoughtful thing to do that day. But perhaps, she was already thinking of that coat, not so much as something that belonged to her, but as a gift of God meant for sharing. Perhaps that moment too, was a glimpse of the church as it is meant to be.
But all of this takes work and dedication — not only from a few leaders, but from all the participants in the community. And we can’t do it unless we are willing to spend time together… Sunday by Sunday, day by day… we need to be together, to get to know each other, to pray for each other, and care for each other.
And of course, we need to keep the door open, welcoming in new members of our growing community. Because when we begin to be that church described in the book of Acts — praising God and having the good will of all the people — then day by day, the Lord will add to our number.
May God fill us with the Spirit, and help us to be that community of love and care for one another and for all the world. Amen.