Not long after the resurrection of Jesus and the adventures of the first disciples as they encountered the now-living Lord, a community formed. In the early chapters of the book of Acts that community is described. It’s description . . .the description of the first church, still inspires, challenges, and haunts us today.
In Acts 4, the whole group of those who believed in Jesus Christ were said to be of one heart and soul. This is inspiring. Often someone will say, “I want us to be a New Testament church. I want to get back to the basics.” When people say that, they mean a very particular part of the New Testament. They don’t mean the Corinthian church with all of its divisions and problems. They don’t mean the church in Galatia with its penchant for false preaching. They certainly don’t mean the church in Revelation enduring persecution for its faith. They don’t mean Rome with its hard work to resolve the division between racial groups. They mean Acts. This here. This church. In Jerusalem where the church came to life and where they shared all things in common. No other New Testament passage depicts the ideal of sharing with the Christ-following community so vividly. (Troy Troftgruben) They did church like many people really wish it were today.
It must have been a time of tremendous power and glory. The description in Acts 4 notes the close association between the apostolic witness to the resurrection of Jesus and the grace-filled life of the gathered community in his name. This power inspired landowners and homeowners to share their goods and in many cases to sell property and lay the proceeds on the ground at the apostle’s feet.
Even people who might say, “I’m not sure I want to share my stuff and my life like that,” still say, “but I want to be part of a community that makes me want to do it. I want there to be a community that calls me beyond myself and what I would naturally do . . .part of a movement that draws something out of me that I didn’t even know was there. Inspire me!”
The example of Joseph puts a human face on it. Joseph’s heart was so full and his spirit so lively that he was nicknamed Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement. He sold a field and brought the money and laid it at the apostle’s feet. His act of joyful sacrifice is remembered as an embodiment of his name: encouragement to all. It is this picture of the New Testament church that inspires us. It is also a picture of church that is awfully challenging. It’s so challenging because it’s so unequivocally material, so thoroughly economic, money and possessions and everything else those stand for. If the Old Testament is a whole lot about pots and pans, the New Testament is about everything. The first Christians were all in: soul and body, will and material goods, relationships and economics. All in.
My old pastor, Cecil Sherman, who thought fast and talked slow, was confronted by someone. “I think it’s wrong that you talk about tithing 10% of our income. That’s in the Old Testament. Tithing is not a New Testament command.” Dr. Sherman responded, in his slow drawl, “Well, you’re right. Giving 10% to the Lord is from the Old Testament. But in the New Testament, they gave 100%. So . . .take your pick. Seems to me we’ve pretty much been letting you off easy.”
We may get off easier, but they didn’t. Remember that after Barnabas sold his property and gave his gift, another man walked in and behind him his wife. This duplicitous couple also sold their property (a courageous act). They also made a generous and sacrificial gift to the church, but they represented that they had given all, when they had only given some. They came in humming “All to Jesus I surrender. All to him I freely give.” They gave a lot but they should have been singing, “Some to Jesus I surrender. Some to him I decide to give.” The gap between who they said they were and who they were cost them their lives.
Ananias dropped dead on the spot. When his wife came in later and fostered the same lie, she did as well. The young men who had just come back from burying Ananias now took her body out. If you had signed up on the ministry chart in that church to be a gravedigger, thinking you had an easy job, this was a tough day for you.
Still want to be in a New Testament church where what you make and what you give is posted on the board and your very life is at stake with every ‘tithe’ check you write?
This is challenging stuff, New Testament church as a community in which material goods are shared generously with all and none are in need. Challenging and controversial. If you ever want to have a lively discussion, next time you are stuck in an elevator with a bunch of church people, just start talking about this passage.
In addition to firing up I want to be a New Testament Church guy, you’ll also rouse No Way This Sounds like Communism Guy, who will say something like, “No way. This sounds like communism.” Chiming in will be This Was Just for the 1st Century, Not Us Girl, and she will probably say, “They thought Jesus was coming back soon, in their lifetimes. That’s why they sold everything. They didn’t think they would need it much longer.” It’s a fair point, Girl Who Knows the New Testament will chime in, adding, “You know, when Paul is writing letters to those churches—Corinth, Galatia—he asks them to take an offering to send to Jerusalem to help the mother church out. Precisely because they had sold everything and given their money away.”
And then the group stuck in the elevator will debate whether that on the whole was good or not—was it good that they became so needy that they needed an offering to sustain them? After all, at least in part, it was the occasion for much of the New Testament to be written. Or was it foolish not to be a little more thoughtful about the future? And what about poverty and people who spend what they have as soon as they have it and need help all the time? What about that?
And what about the needy person? What does it mean to be needy? Does it mean that in the church we take care of one another, or does it mean that we take care of people in society outside the church as well as people sitting next to us in prayer? Do we only pass the offering plate for people with whom we pass the peace?
And on and on. Questions theological, ecclesiological, economic and political.
Any person in an elevator with other Christians who starts this conversation better know how to finish it. Any pastor who preaches on this passage better know how to resolve some of this, right? Sure, but, especially if we take the witness of the early church seriously and believe it means something for us, we bump into two realities:
1. The congregation has not sold everything they own and shared it either with one
And so the irony of preaching this witness as authoritative for the church today now gives most of us pause. Most preachers, I suspect, say they want their church to be more like a New Testament church, but quietly they’d prefer it to be something a little less.
And so, seeing that being a New Testament church is just too tough and costs too much and the systemic and personal needs in the city are so plain and obvious, we turn our attention there--outside the church. And say something like, “You know what the real problem is . . .it’s out there in the poverty. If we can root out all the evil and corruption, and change the politics, we can help the needy out there.” It’s the ‘out there’ that’s important. Keep the problems out there. And keep the solutions out there.
So, instead of looking inward to the church as a place where generosity and sharing of life is practiced, the kind that might change the world, it’s easier to say, let’s get together and see what we can do about problems out there.
Every person may have something that comes first to mind when thinking of the Big Problem Today. One of them that is economic and increasingly dominant and worthy of attention is the predatory lending pit being dug right here in our city. There’s a destructive, economic, unjust practice that is the diametrical opposite to the witness of the early church as a people among whom the poor were protected and provided for, where people shared all things in common, their hearts, and souls, and the good of the community.
It’s everywhere. There are twice as many payday-lending outfits in the country as there are Starbucks. And there’s a lot of Starbucks. Look at the studies that show the absurdity of the loopholes and lack of regulation that make this possible in our state and city so that borrowers in crisis go in for $300 and come out paying on average $840, and that’s for those who get out. They are preying on people in crisis with a system that is fundamentally set up as a business model to keep people in increasing debt. It’s one nefarious part of the pit of poverty.
As long as we’re looking at something out there, see almost 30 of these places in our beloved city. See the old usury laws skirted and evaded by loopholes. See $9 million drained from our local economy by this system. And see the growth of this practice as a flag running up the flagpole for those who have eyes to see, a trumpet blowing a clarion note, for those who have ears to hear. Something is very wrong here. It is a peek through the window into the intractable web of circumstances, decisions, and generational entrapments of poverty. And it is a perfect designed parasite on poverty. It does not kill poverty. It feeds on it without killing it. Something Jesus said comes to mind: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come that you may have life and have it to the full.”
So instead of looking inward, we look out there. And by focusing only on that out there, as important as it is, righteous political/societal anger replaces costly self-sacrifice. Change the laws. Just don’t change me. Don’t change my family. And don’t change the church. And by making that move, we subtly shift from preaching cheap grace to preaching the cheap peace where the reforming action is all out there, and the insulated quiet spiritual comfort remains in here. We’ve completed the move when we hear ourselves essentially saying: Let’s change that out there, but not change anything in here.
It’s hard moving the needle on an issue like this, but what the New Testament church did is no much more demanding. If we were to follow their model in some way with love for our neighbor in mind, we’d probably have to do some pretty big things in the life and economics of the church. We’d probably have to figure out how to really help people out of their crises and out of poverty instead of a couple of grudging handouts and a couple of letters to the editor. That’s a lot more work.
And, not being able to change all the laws we’d like to have changed, we’d probably have to devote some significant resources and work with other congregations to create some way to give an alternative to people taking out these loans and give people caught in them a life line. We’d probably have to put the sharks out of business. That’s a lot of work and a lot of money, and would take some pretty creative people working together with the support of the church. If we couldn’t move the needle on economics and politics as they are, the church would have to birth an alternative economics and practice an alternative politics for the good of others.
Who knows if it would work and be a blessing for the lives and children of the people most entrapped? It would be a risk for the church and might cost us something big. But, if we go by first church’s witness, the church has always risked something big of themselves for something good for others.
If only that early church had begun just as an advocacy center or a social services agency, it would be so much easier not to be haunted by their total devotion to the gospel, by their total commitment to the community.
If only they would have been just spiritual, and not so economic and practical. If only they would have kept to breaking bread with one another, and stopped short of sharing bread of all kinds with others.
If only Christians had stopped there, it would be easy not to be so Christ-haunted by their lives.
Instead, they just kept going and going, leaning in more and more to this faith until they had gone all in. And they seemed to do it with joy. Maybe it was the joy that changed the world.
The church, in the person of Peter, stands before us all. And says, “This is a wonderful, and joy-filled life. The power that broke the bonds of death on Easter, and shattered divisions of speech on Pentecost, now can release us from the tight grip of self-interest and set us free to love our neighbor with everything we’ve got.