Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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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.
One Heart and Soul: Acts 4: 32-35
“The Resurrection is a relational event!” That’s what Dr. Mitzi Smith says in her commentary on this passage. The Resurrection is a relational event. What does she mean? Not even Jesus himself was resurrected by his own will. Just as he called disciples as co-workers in his ministry so he would not work alone, Jesus’ resurrection was not his own act. I won’t, in one sermon, try to untangle Christian ideas about God and the Trinity. I will say that God, the force that is in Jesus but also something other than Jesus, raised Jesus out of Death. And, in the same way that the disciples were co-workers with Christ before the resurrection, they became witnesses of the Resurrection after. And, Jesus, the resurrected Christ, gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit, that force that is within Jesus and is God but is also something else. And, the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ Spirit, God’s Spirit, is with the disciples, as they share the good news of the Resurrection as told in the book of Acts.
The Resurrection is not a solo activity. It is relational. The movement that became Christianity began in relationships. First, the relationships within God. Then, the relationships between God and humanity, Jesus and humanity. And, eventually, in the relationships among people who had witnessed the resurrection and the ones to whom they testified. This is why the Apostle Paul would eventually come to call Christ’s followers a body... not one of them could function alone. All the parts have to work together in the body. All of the followers of Jesus must work and preach and pray and eat together to become the Body of Christ. The Resurrection was born of relationships and the church is being born all the time through relationships. As Dr. Smith says in her commentary, the Resurrection shows that God can defeat that which is death-dealing. The disciples learned this good news through their relationship with Jesus. And, they would tell others what New Life was possible. And, they would show others that new life was possible by living a new kind of life, one where they shared all they had together.
Olive Elaine Hinnant, in her commentary on this passage, says that it’s important to pay attention a couple ways that Israelites organized community in order to understand just important it was for the early Jesus’ followers in Acts to live in communal care and ownership of all they had. First, Dr. Hinnant notes that embedded in Jewish scripture are two particular sets of stories that show God as a God of abundance and ample provision: first, the creation stories, where animals, land, and heavens are made in joy and then turned over to the stewardship of humanity, and second, the Exodus story, which ends in God leading the people to a land flowing with milk and honey. Foundational to Jewish ideas about the divine is this sense that God provides a great abundance for the flourishing of God’s people. If people tended to the abundance well, there was no poverty among them.
According to Dr. Hinnant, the trouble came when people came to live in a way that was out of balance, and took more than they needed. In order to make sure that all could live in God’s abundance, a system to redistribute that abundance became part of their shared tradition. This is the second community principal Dr. Hinnant thinks we should remember.
At the beginning of the book of Luke, the book to which Acts is a sequel, Jesus says that he is fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, who said that God would send someone who would, in part, let the oppressed go free and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. This is a reference to two practices ancient Israel developed, the sabbatical year and the jubilee. Dr. Hinnant says that these practices were used to maintain an equitable distribution of God’s abundance. Every seven years, during the sabbatical year, the land would be left fallow to regenerate and not be over-farmed, debts within the Hebrew community would be cancelled, and all slaves would be set free and paid for their work. The jubilee year, which was celebrated every 49 years, would include those three things and added the provision that every family would retake possession of their ancestral land. This means that no one wealthy family could keep amassing land that they would only pass along to other members of their family.
If the community was truly practicing the Jubilee years as was described in Leviticus 25:13-34, impoverished people would gain the opportunity to rebuild and wealthy people would not be allowed to hoard wealth. Dr. Hinnant claims that, by the time Jesus came along, declaring the time of Jubilee, his community had lost the regular practice of both sabbatical years and jubilee years, even as they occasionally left land fallow for regeneration. In the book of Luke, above all the other Gospels, Jesus expressed a particular concern for impoverished people. It makes sense, then, in Acts, as the disciples and new believers built a community of Christ, that the material situations of the believers would be tended to. Jesus proclaimed the Jubilee. The believers in Acts would show us a way to live it out.
My church history professor from seminary, Dr. Bill Leonard, wrote an article that he shared this week that reminded me of this passage from Acts and how truly hard it has been for the Christians who have followed those earliest believers in Christ to continue to live in Jubilee. The article is about current efforts to suppress voting rights and all of the shouting about critical race theory done by people who don’t actually understand what it is. In the article, Dr. Leonard shares a quote from 1643 by Roger Williams. Rev. Williams was a Puritan minister and early English colonizer, who, compared to many people in his ethnic and religious community, argued for a more fair and generous relationship the first peoples who lived on this continent. His ministry scandalized our Congregationalist ancestors enough that he was kicked out of the Massachusetts Bay colony. He would go on to found what would become the Rhode Island Colony and start the First Baptist Church in America in Providence.
In his work titled Key to the Language of America, Williams describes the hospitality he received when interacting with members of the Narraganset nation and other tribal communities. A note: He will use a term to describe indigenous people that is now widely named as racist. I still think it is worthwhile to share his entire quote as Dr. Leonard did. Here’s what he wrote:
They were hospitable to everybody, whomsoever cometh in when they are eating, they offer them to eat of what they have, though but little enough (is) prepared for themselves. If any provision of fish or flesh comes in, they presently give … to eat of what they have. … It is a strange truth that a man generally find more free entertainment and refreshing amongst these Barbarians than amongst the thousands that call themselves Christians.
Now, clearly, Rev. Williams had been targeted by his own community and expelled from the colony because he spoke truthfully and named the sinful ways they were treating the indigenous people of the land they were colonizing. He had been a target of Christians, even though he was a Christian. No wonder he would be so clear in his critique. As Dr. Leonard states in his article, “The people who claimed to bring Christ and the kingdom of God into a ‘heathen wilderness’ were actually shamed by the very ‘Barbarians’ they sought to conquer, convert and ultimately displace.” Unfortunately, Rev. Williams quote continues to feel timely, though it has been 378 years since he originally wrote it.
Yesterday (Saturday, June 12th) was the fifth anniversary of the massacre at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Nearly everyone who was killed in that mass shooting was Black or Latinx. Nearly everyone who was killed was a member of the LGBTQ community. Part of the reason this particular mass shooting continues to hurt so deeply for so many members of these communities is that bars like Pulse often become sources of communal care and acceptance, especially for people who have been rejected by their families, many of whom are devoutly Christian. When the church has taken away your family, your ability to house and feed yourself, even your self-confidence and your creative imagination to see a loving, vital future ahead of you, historically, so many bars gave back what has been taken. When a bar, which has been a sanctuary, was attacked, people felt like all their safe spaces were unsafe again. Again, those who claim Christ continue to be shamed by the ones they seek to convert and displace.
Thank God that we have this example from the book of Acts that show us what following Christ can look like. “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul... there was not a needy person among them.” May all of our testimonies to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus exist alongside this kind of communal care. Scripture shows us that our testimonies are incomplete without it. Resurrection is relational. May we live a faith of Jubilee. May we act as like we know our God is Abundant.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Mitzi Smith: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-acts-432-35
Olive Elaine Hinnant, "Second Sunday of Easter," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B, Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
Bill Leonard: https://baptistnews.com/article/critical-race-theory-voter-suppression-and-historical-negation-the-irony-of-it-all/?fbclid=IwAR1gGw8oL7yk-OuMlkdT4e2QvB07Pdjc9ClFfW3G3VR7wjR5kZE0ECiW4FA#.YMVjbKhKjHo
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.