Psalm 133; Acts 2:36-47
The second chapter of Acts, aka "The Acts of the Apostles," tells the story of the birth of the Christian Church. We are told here how the Church came into being, and what it was like, and how it lived. One could spend much time with the particulars of this text, drawing from it a multitude of lessons for the contemporary life of the Church. This morning, however, I invite you to consider the larger witness of this text, the testimony that where the Spirit of Jesus is alive in the human community dramatic change will not only be a possibility but will become a reality, and remarkable things will happen.
As biblical scholar John Knox has written, "The primitive Christian community"--when biblical scholars speak of "primitive" they do not mean crude, or rough-hewn, or unfinished, but original, very early--"The primitive Christian community was not a memorial society with its eyes fastened on a departed master; it was a dynamic community created around a living and present Lord" [quoted by Mark Link, THE SEVENTH TRUMPET, 195]. This is how it was to begin. Read the first few chapters of Acts. It is quite a story: the resurrection of Jesus, the out-pouring of the Spirit on Pentecost, the boldness with which Peter and John undertake to preach, the daily and dramatic additions to the numbers of the disciples, the continuing witness in the face of persecution and death. A dramatic change came over the little community of those who had followed Jesus. If they had been afraid, they were afraid no longer. If they had been divided, now they are all of one heart and soul. If they had lacked perceptivity and resolve, now they respond as a people who are seized by a vision and devoted to a higher cause.
What had happened? How did they get from fright and fear and faithlessness to this new way of being together in the world? The first thing to be said is that resurrection had become real to them. They had had an experience, some kind of revelatory event, in which they became aware of the continuing and living presence of Jesus. They had had an experience in which the Spirit of Jesus had become so powerfully manifest to them that they would never experience or perceive the world the same again. And what was happening to them was too good to keep to themselves.
After Peter proclaims the good news about Jesus the Christ, including the message that this anointed man of God, this prophet and worker of mighty wonders, was crucified, the people say to Peter and the apostles, "What shall we do?" Peter speaks the answer that the Church has given from the beginning to those who would seek to order their lives in relation to this New Reality that has come into the world: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." That is the core of what the Christian apostle and evangelist has to say. The rest of this second chapter of Acts goes on to describe what the new human community actually looks like after repentance, baptism, forgiveness, and the Spirit have taken hold.
To highlight what is so remarkable and important here, I would like to read from a writing of another religious community that was contemporary with the early Church. This community was located at Qumran, at the northern end of the Dead Sea, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found some 50+ years ago. It was a Jewish community, highly discipline, very committed. It was a community that sought to live a way of life that was holy, set apart from the rest of the world. One of this community's chief documents, found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, is the "Manual of Discipline." I am reading first from a section titled "Of the Commitment" and then from other portions pertaining to the life and rule of this community:
"Everyone who wishes to join the community must pledge himself to respect God and man; to live
according to the communal rule; to seek God; to do what is good and upright in His sight, in accordance
with what He has commanded through Moses and through his servants the prophets; to love all that He
has chosen and hate all that He has rejected; . . . to love all the children of light, each according to his
stake in the formal community of God; and to hate all the children of darkness, each according to the
measure of his guilt, which God will ultimately requite.
All who declare their willingness to serve God's truth must bring all of their mind, all of their strength, and all of their wealth into the community of God, so that their minds may be purified by the truth of His precepts, their strength controlled by His perfect ways, and their wealth disposed in accordance with His just design. They must not deviate a single step from carrying out the orders of God at the times appointed for them. . . . They must not turn aside from the ordinances of God's truth either to the right or to the left" [pp. 39-40].
"Of Communal Duties": "The general members of the community are to keep awake for a third of all the nights of the year reading book(s), studying the Law and worshipping together" [pp. 49-50].
"Of Fraud": "If a man speak with his neighbor in guile or consciously practice deceit upon him, he is to be mulcted for six months. If, however, he practices the deceit [unintentionally], he is to be mulcted only for three months. If a man defraud the community, causing a deficit in its funds, he is to make good that deficit. If he lack means to do so, he is to be mulcted for sixty days" [pp. 52-53].
"Of Misconduct at Public Sessions": Anyone who interrupts his neighbor in a public session is to be mulcted for ten days. Anyone who lies down and goes to sleep at a public session is to be mulcted for thirty days. Anyone who leaves a public session gratuitously and without reason for as many as three times during one sitting is to be mulcted for ten days. If he be ordered to stay (?) and he still leave, he is to be mulcted for thirty days" [p. 53].
"Of Indecorous Acts": "If a man spit into the midst of a public session, he shall be mulcted for thirty days. . . . If a man indulge in raucous, inane laughter, he shall be mulcted for thirty days. If a man put forth his left hand to gesticulate with it in conversation, he shall be mulcted for ten days" [pp.53-54].
"Of Slander and Incrimination": "If a man slander his neighbor, he shall be regarded as outside the communal state of purity for one year, and he shall also be mulcted. But if he slander the entire group, he is to be expelled and never to return. If a man complain against the whole basis of the community, he is to be expelled irrevocably. If he complain against his neighbor without legitimate cause, he is to be mulcted for six months" [Theodore H. Gaster, THE DEAD SEA SCRIPTURES, 54].
Now, aren't you glad you are not a member of such a community? Most of us would hardly measure up! If not "mulcted" most of the time, we would be miserable and afraid of being caught in some violation of the rules. Aren't you glad being a member of this church does not require of you this kind of commitment?
But what of the commitment of that first Christian community described to us in the book of Acts? Indications are that life in that community also involved a very thorough commitment, perhaps as great or greater than Qumran. It was a way of life, not just an occasional or weekly exercise. Certainly not just an hour on Sunday! These first Christians apparently shared with the Qumran community even the practice of holding their goods and possessions in common. Their fellowship was grounded not only in spiritual practices but in material conditions as well.
Yet, whatever the similarities between Qumran and the early church, the differences are striking. In contrast to Qumran, we find in the early church an apparent absence of formal rule and sanction. There was no lack of commitment and discipline, but these were present without external compulsion or penalty or threat. To be a member of Qumran one had to turn over goods and possessions; one had to devote oneself to particular disciplines; one had to separate oneself from the rest of humankind. Nowhere is it indicated that similar requirements were imposed upon the first Christians. And yet, though not physically separated from the rest of the world, the first Christians led a different way of life. They were together, says our text, and they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers [2:44, 42]. And they had all things in common. "No one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own" [Acts 4:32]. It was not that the community took over the wealth of its members, but that the members put their wealth at the disposal of the community. Put simply, and I hope not unfairly, the difference between Qumran and the primitive Christian community was the difference between law and grace. In chapter 4 of Acts it is said that "great grace was upon them all" [vs. 33].
Of course, everything did not remain as it began. Conflicts soon arose within the early Church. But let us stick with our text this morning. It raises a fundamental question regarding life in the Christian community. It is the question of possibility, not of practicality. What is remarkable and noteworthy is not that the spiritual and material communalism of the first Christians did not last, but that it ever happened at all.
Something mighty significant must have happened in the lives of these people! Can you imagine what it would take to bring us all to live together, to take all our meals together, to share all our goods in common! It is often hard enough to live with our spouses!--or our families!--or to get along with our neighbors! The prospect of living together as one big happy family probably sounds to us more like a threat than a promise.
The point is, these first Christians were filled with the Spirit, and the resurrection of their Lord Jesus Christ was a vivid reality to them. They were a people seized by a Presence and a vision. What happened to them was neither a great imposition nor a self-concocted experiment, but a manifestation of grace. Whatever judgment we may pass on that early Christian community, our text clearly presents it as nothing less than a movement of the Divine, a manifestation of God's Spirit.
In this light, it is mistaken to characterize the communal existence of the early Church as an experiment that failed. It was not an experiment. Neither was it a failure. It was a reflection of the reality of the new creation. Our text demands our most serious attention. It may be that just this sort of thing will happen wherever and whenever a people experience the spiritual reality of Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord.
At the very least, our text calls us to consider the inescapable connection between our religion and our communal and social life. The prophet Jeremiah had once warned the people of Israel that there was no true worship of God without the doing of justice. In the early Christian community we see the fulfillment of the Old Testament ideal of "no poor among you." What makes the testimony of the resurrection credible is not just the belief of the disciples, not just the boldness with which they proclaimed the risen Christ, not just their willingness to suffer for their faith, but the quality and character of the community which was created from among those for whom this message had come to be true.
If we are not provided here with a complete blueprint for our social existence, we are nonetheless confronted in a serious way with the question of community. Not only does this question of community bear directly on the meaning of Christian existence, more and more it is becoming the question of our world. More and more we are coming to realize how interdependent we all are on one another. More and more we are coming to realize the dangers of being isolated from one another, of not understanding one another, of disregarding each other's interests and needs. More and more we are coming to understand how great disparities of wealth and power in our world are both symptoms and causes of great injustice and social conflict.
What are the major social and ethical issues of our day? War, hunger, disease, various liberation
movements, the status of women, energy, ecology, human rights, the arms race . . . Is there a one
in which basic issues of justice and economics are not involved? In "Choruses from the Rock"
T.S. Eliot wrote:
"When the Stranger says: 'What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?'
What will you answer? 'We all dwell together
To make money from each other'? or 'This is a community'?"
What is it that makes for any community? Is it simply the convergence of mutual interests? What is the basis for our relations to one another? Is it anything more than a matter of how we fit into the social structure, the economic machinery? Often our admissions of failure, sin, and guilt are little more than disguised attempts to hold on to our possessions and power. What might move us so to repent of our present way of existence as to relinquish personal power and control, to renounce self-righteousness and acquisitiveness and greed and to share all things in common?
There was in the first Christian community the profound realization and powerful demonstration that life under God entails not only the transcending but the transforming of life in the world. "No one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common" [4:32]. No, for whatever reasons, it did not last; but once upon a time it happened! There can be little doubt that a faithful appropriation of the teachings, life, and meaning of Jesus Christ would lead to a thorough-going social and economic reconstruction of our world. Such a transformation in that first Christian community could not have happened without some vision and some sense of meaningful participation with God in God's unfolding purposes for humankind. The immediate result, according to our text, was that "the Lord added to their numbers day by day those who were being saved" [2:47].
[Given enough time, almost any group or organization comes to embody values and practices that stand in enormous tension and contradiction to the initial impulse or vision that gave it birth. In part what happens is what Max Weber called the "routinization"--or making routine--"of the charisma." But it also often happens that we so revere or idealize the past that it ceases to be relevant to the present. A most obvious case in point--and I hope I am not stepping on anybody's toes-- has been the Daughters of the American Revolution. Can you imagine a less revolutionary group?! The Christian Church is no exception to the rule.]
It is much easier to worship Jesus than to take him at his word. We would prefer to admire the apostles' boldness to being bold ourselves. We would rather celebrate the faithfulness of others than be faithful ourselves. Yet the problem for us is not how to reproduce the pattern of life that existed in the first Christian community. Rather, the problem is how we today can re-capture the vision, or better, allow ourselves to be seized by the vision, that gave the Church its new life. Or perhaps what we need is a new vision. Only with the vision comes the power and the grace to make the possibility real.
The first Christians were seized by a vision that had something to do with what human community under God might be. It was a vision they identified with Jesus of Nazareth. These Christians were aware of a Presence, a Spirit, that had become real to them in Jesus. It was this vision and this Presence that led them to do with willingness and eagerness and joy what we would likely do only under the greatest threat or compulsion: "all who believed were together and had all things in common". I would encourage you not to think this is the sort of thing that happens only "once upon a time." AMEN.
Copyright 2003 by Byron C. Bangert