Hi there! Good to have you here again! Let’s get right to it.
Acts 4:32-35 When you come down to it, today’s Acts text sits in the context of the events of Pentecost. You’ll have to wait a while before we discuss that in detail, but for now, let’s say you already know what Pentecost—and the coming of the Holy Spirit—is all about. (If you don’t, just back up a few pages; if you read Acts from the very beginning to where we are, it’s only a four and a half page read—five minutes?) Following the coming of the Spirit, a whole batch of things burst forth: converts start coming to the new church, miraculous healings take place, Peter (yes, you heard right: Peter!) begins speaking in the Temple, and Peter and John are hailed before the Council, and they speak boldly, confounding the Council. The believers begin pointedly to pray for boldness in witnessing; they’ll need it! Finally, the Christ-centered church begins to form, to gel. Today’s Acts reading is about that new church.
There is one problem, though. The official reading for today is so short as to be difficult to interpret. We need to see it in context. As we’ve just said, it’s already in the context of the events of Pentecost, but there’s more elsewhere about the developing church, and I propose to use it now: Acts 2.43-47. It’s a much fuller description of the new church; I suspect the description in 4.32-35 is so short because the writer (Luke, presumably) feels that since 2.43-47 has already been given, he doesn’t have to repeat himself. Today’s text is just a short recapitulation. I’m going to discuss 4.32-35 by discussing 2.43-47. We’ll let the earlier text reflect forward onto the later one.
I have to say this; today’s reading reminds me of two other things: hippie communes and early Communism—in their early days, when all the joy and enthusiasm of a new beginning were there. But I draw the line there. We all know that soon, the joy on hippie communes waned as things hit a wall; not everyone was into sharing and community. And we also know that the idealism of early Communism dissolved; soon, it was about political power, and that became brutal and repressive regimes. So, all I’m talking about is the joy and enthusiasm of the early days.
If you go back and read from the beginning of Acts, the first chapter sets the stage, and it ties up some loose ends. The disciples are with Jesus after the Resurrection, and there is a reminder of the coming of the Holy Spirit. Then Jesus ascends into heaven. Then the disciples choose another disciple to restore the inner circle to twelve; they choose Matthias. Things explode in Chapter 2. First of all, there is a breath-taking event, the coming of the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus promised. We’ll come back to that in about a month. Then Peter—always the speaker for the Twelve—blossoms. He preaches a sermon in the Temple, explaining what everyone has just experienced, the coming of the Spirit. Then comes the inevitable: converts. Please note what I am not saying; I am not saying that the Church was born on the day of Pentecost. The word church is from Greek kyriakós and it means ‘belonging to the Lord’. The concept of belonging to the Lord is thousands of years old, and it’s expressed in Hebrew by the word qāhāl ‘assembly’ (we use the Greek word ekklēsía ‘assembly’ also). It occurs over a hundred times in the Old Testament, starting in Exodus. In other words, the people of the Lord are definitely thought of as such by the time of the Exodus. But I wonder, were Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob already an “assembly”? At the very least, we can say that the “assembly”, the qāhāl, has existed since the mid-1400s BCE. What we’re talking about in today’s Acts reading is the qāhāl in a new form. We can play around, trying to think of a new name for it, but why not go with the one that’s been used since virtually the first day? Christi-an ‘Christian’. The Christ-followers.
You can imagine that the first days were exciting. Close your eyes and imagine the events of Acts 2, especially the coming of the Holy Spirit. As of that, the people started coming, first a trickle, then a flow, then … well, who knows? A lot. And the people are excited, spirited. That’s what we see in Acts 2.43-47—which continues in today’s reading: Acts 4.32-37.
So, enough dancing around. What did the early Christi-an church look like? First of all, let me ask you, “You’ve heard of lifelong learning?” That’s sort of what it was like. I don’t know how much the average Jew of the time knew about their own faith, but as of that moment, they started coming out to learn, and to learn about this new form of the faith. The good thing was, they had a group of eyewitnesses, the Apostles, who could teach them all they needed to at least get started in the new qāhāl, the kyriakós, the church. So, here were lifelong Jews coming out to learn about the faith they’d been a part of since their birth, but with a new twist. They were learners. Is that what you’re doing right now? (Note: such learning about the fundamentals of Christianity comes in waves. Remember Alpha? Christian Basics? Christianity 101?)
Second, they were a loving church. That expressed itself as koinonia ‘fellowship’. They were with one another as often as possible. They did things together. They liked being together, and they loved each other. As such, they shared everything. The idea of a sharing community wasn’t new; there was already a precedent in the community at Qumran (remember the Dead Sea Scrolls?). However, it looks like the Jesus-followers didn’t necessarily share everything, e.g., their homes, see Acts 2.46: “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home ….” I.e., they had homes. Maybe it was “house church”? Did you ever belong to one? Did you eat together as house church?
Third, they worshipped. They continued worshipping in the temple (2.46), so they didn’t see themselves as the replacement of Judaism nor as a breakaway; they were the “new Jews”? But we just spoke of “house churches”, and it looks like they worshipped together in their homes, as well. They were both reverent and joyful (see 2.46-47). One author I’ve read (ask me, and I’ll tell you who it is) summed it up interestingly: “It is right in public worship to be dignified; it is unforgivable to be dull.”
Finally, I have to use the “e-word”: evangelism. So many people get upset with that word because, for them, it means ‘hucksters, charlatans’. I’m not talking about that. Evangel- comes from Greek eu-angel- ‘good-message, good-news’, so all evangelist really means is ‘someone who comes with good news’. And that’s what the early church did. You might be relieved to learn that it’s not only about telling. Or more to the point, everything you do and say is a “telling”. People at the time saw what the Christi-an people, the Jesus- were like, and it made them say, “I want to be part of that.”
Psalm 133 This psalm sounds like what the newborn church looked like: joy in fellowship. “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” And when you have a close bond with a friend, they’re “kindred”.
What does this relationship look like? The psalm speaks in terms of anointing. Have you ever been anointed? I have. Several times. Nowadays, anointing is a very polite affair. Typically, the anointer moistens her/his thumb in oil of anointing and makes the sign of the cross with it on your forehead. Well, that’s not what the psalm is talking about; this is extravagant! This is taking the oil and pouring it—a lot of it—on your head, and it runs down and drips on your clothes. “It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.” That’s how extravagant this relationship is, this living “together in unity”.
Similarly, it’s like water. In a hot, dry climate, water—even just dew—is precious; it’s a real gift. Water is thirst-quenching. It’s cooling. It’s cleansing. It’s refreshing. It’s life-giving. And that’s what it’s like “when kindred live together in unity”. “It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion.” And this blessing is from God. “For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life for evermore.”
That’s what it felt like to be a member of the early church.
1 John 1:1-2:2 This sounds like what the Apostles would have said to the early church; it’s their witness about Jesus and about the eternal life—abundant life, shalom—which comes from following Jesus. They’re eyewitnesses; they should know! So, we get from John the Evangelist:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” John 3:16
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life but must endure God’s wrath.”
Abundant life, shalom. That sounds like the early church.
“God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” Light is a metaphor for whatever is good, right, righteous. If we walk in the light, we’re in right relationship with all around us; we’re in fellowship. What do you think? Is this the reason so many were drawn to the early church? They were drawn to the light? Was it, for example, their sharing as a part of the life of the community? If you’re in fellowship, how can you not share with those around you? (By the way, “fellowship” is such a dry term, when you consider that what that really means is that they loved being together!)
But for me, the punchline is the last two sentences of this reading, 1 John 2.1-2: “… if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Jesus is our advocate. Jesus is the one who is on our side. God has always wanted the very best for us. That’s how Creation is created.
John 20:19-31 Here’s the one you’ve been waiting for. Doubting Thomas. This story shows us how the Apostles can be the authoritative teachers in the new qāhāl, the assembly of Jesus-followers. It’s all because they’ve personally experienced the risen Christ. That’s fine, but what about Thomas? He was out getting his car serviced—or whatever—when Jesus appeared. The problem for Thomas is that he’s like me. When someone comes to me, saying that X is true, my response is usually something like, “I’m prepared to believe you. Show me the evidence.” Are you like that? Poor Thomas has to wait a week, but then the evidence appears—in person! And then Thomas’s reaction changes from “Yeah, sure. Pull the other one” to “My Lord and my God!”
Imagine how Thomas felt during that week of waiting. “Why did I have to be away? How come they got to see, and I didn’t? Or are they just having me on? An elaborate joke?” I think it really hurt not to be in total fellowship with the other ten. I think Thomas craved the bond. I think Thomas was faithful in most respects; it’s just that last little thing—seeing. For most people, seeing is the way we “get it”. That’s what leads to “faith in” someone and eventually “faith to” someone. Most of us are in the same boat.
But maybe that’s just the point. Trust. How do we know we can trust someone? I’ve never personally seen the Corona virus. How do I know there really is any such thing? I have to trust the health scientists. How do I know that my parents were telling me the truth about things when they were raising me? I have to trust. Now, it has to be said that trust stems from seeing that someone is reliable, seeing time and again that what they say is true.
What about those of us who will never literally see the risen Jesus? Can we trust anyone about the Resurrection? Well, if you’re Thomas, you probably know the other apostles well enough to know whether they’re honest and accurate, or in this case, they may be honest, but are they accurate? All ten of them insist that what they’re saying is right. But that’s hard to believe; dead people don’t normally come back to life. I can see where Thomas has trouble here.
And certainly, that must have been true of the people in Jerusalem at Pentecost. A lot of people saw it, and they could attest to it. But what was it? Wind, flames, speaking in tongues. And what did it mean? The apostles knew, Peter knew, and all the others just had to trust them. And there you have it; the Jesus-followers grow in number; a few at first, then more and more. The rest is history.