< April 08, 2018 >

Commentary on Acts 4:32-35

 

What does an Easter church look like?

Acts 4:32-35 provides the second snapshot of the believing community. We encounter the first in Acts 2:42-47, which follows immediately upon the Pentecost outbreak and Peter’s first great sermon. The Revised Common Lectionary invites us to consider both snapshots in the context of Easter, not Pentecost: Acts 2:42-47 occurs on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A. Having grown up in a non-liturgical tradition, I might have expected both snapshots to appear early in the Season of Pentecost. But I am grateful for this invitation to ponder what Easter means for the life of the church.

A resurrection church in Acts

Acts provides a wonderful framework for this question. First, Acts joins Paul and the author of John in linking the gift of the Spirit with the resurrection. Paul claims, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11, NRSV). He also refers to “ first fruits of the Spirit” (Romans 8:23), just as he speaks of Jesus’ resurrection as the “first fruits of those who have died” (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23). In John’s Gospel it is the risen Jesus who breathes the Spirit upon his followers (John 20:22). Acts places forty days to pass between the resurrection and Pentecost, tempting us to separate the two. But Jesus’ promise to the disciples in Acts 1:8, a passage often regarded as a preview of the entire narrative, links the Holy Spirit with power, as does Luke 24:49. Sure enough, Peter’s Pentecost sermon identifies the Spirit as a gift bestowed upon Jesus through his resurrection and ascension (Acts 2:32-33).

Second, in Acts the church not only continues the ministry of Jesus, it amplifies it. Time and again Jesus’ followers repeat Jesus’ great deeds and undergo his experiences Jesus’ ministry begins with the Spirit’s descent at his baptism (Luke 3:22), and Acts gets underway when the Spirit rests upon the believers (Acts 2:1-4). Opening sermons by Jesus (Luke 4:16-30) and Peter (Acts 2:14-40) begin by quoting Scripture and declaring it fulfilled. Jesus, Peter, and Paul have saving encounters with centurions, lepers, and people who cannot walk. All three restore to life people who apparently have died. And just as Jesus stands innocent before the authorities, so will Peter, Paul, and other believers. Stephen’s martyrdom echoes that of Jesus in remarkable ways. Both Jesus and Stephen pray that God will show mercy upon their tormentors (Luke 24:34; Acts 7:60),1 and both commit their spirits into God’s care (Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59).

This larger thematic context proves critical for the interpretation of Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35. Both passages show us what resurrection practices look like in a communal context. They show us how the church lives together as it continues and amplifies the ministry of Jesus. Through the centuries Christians have debated whether or not these two passages prescribe how the church should live. We will receive other snapshots of church life as we progress through Acts, though none quite match up to the glory of these two. These stand out as special, though they are not identical. One of my heroes, Clarence Jordan, attempted precisely that model in the racially integrated Koinonia Farm he established in 1942 in Jim Crow Georgia, as have countless others. I would suggest that we avoid reducing these snapshots to either of two poles: one a blueprint for daily living and the other just an idealistic fantasy. Both poles take the stories too literally but not seriously enough. We should take seriously the details of these accounts as signs for our own churchly imaginations.

Touchstones

Acts challenges us to imagine a church living as “one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32). It’s far too easy to critique modern congregations as expressions of consumerist affiliation: We choose the churches we like, we participate in the things we like, and we associate with the people we like. All of that is true to a degree, but we also need to name those be-graced moments when true community happens. As a twelve year-old I was introduced to churchly ways during a week-long hospital stay. Apart from family, my only two visitors came from churches. We might consider the passing of the peace as a moment of sacramental re-membering. We do not pass the peace as a welcome greeting; we do so having confessed our sins and received assurance of pardon. We do so as a sign of reconciliation with God and one another. Acts invites us to imagine such moments as defining rather than accidental.

Readers always seem drawn to the matter of possessions in Acts, perhaps because this testimony challenges us most. Luke describes not a community that requires dispossession of all one’s possessions. Believers do renounce the notion that they have an absolute right to their property, and they habitually share their possessions with members of the community who are in need. Acts indicates this model in several ways. It uses the imperfect tense, which shows habitual action rather than action completed in the past. The example of Barnabas, who will prove one of Acts’ most compelling characters, involves the selling of one field. So does the horrifying example of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11. For contemporary believers, a good starting point would involve sitting down and asking which of our financial practices we can do without and how we may engage personally in works of mercy and justice.

The church in Acts 4 continues to be a witnessing community. Acts 2:42-47 shows a community that breaks bread together -- yes, think Eucharist -- and engages in practices of formation. Since that Pentecost moment, Peter and John have encountered resistance from the authorities. They have been arrested, tried, and threatened. As they persist in their boldness, “great grace” resides upon them (4:33).

“Great grace” makes a flawed goal, for by definition grace comes as a gift from God. To reduce the testimony of Acts 4:32-35 as a checklist of behaviors is to miss what “great grace” entails. But to receive it as a testimony of how God’s resurrection power animates the life of the church, that opens possibilities for faithful response.


Notes:

  1. A notorious text-critical problem attends Luke 24:34.