< April 13, 2008 >

Commentary on Acts 2:42-47

 

Christians make their most magnificent claims during Easter.

It is a bold thing to do, for the victorious assertions of the resurrection are not easily squared with the despair and violence that characterize human experience. This Sunday's reading describes a state of affairs that looks extremely attractive, yet utterly unrealistic or beyond our reach. Its hopeful vision of justice and service can look more like pie in the sky if we are not honest about the struggles that are part of our efforts to proclaim and embody the gospel in our living. But what better time than Easter to proclaim what God is capable of bringing into being?

By the time we get to Acts 2:42, Peter has finished his Pentecost sermon (on the wider context set forth in Acts 2, see the commentary for the two previous Sundays). Nevertheless, the work of the Holy Spirit and the manifestation of the Easter message persist beyond that scene. The snapshot of communal life in 2:42-47 does not occur separately from the Spirit's prophetic work, for it exists as a constituent piece of the Spirit's witness concerning the resurrected Jesus. God calls people to salvation through the Spirit; God also creates a community comprising those who are called.

The idea of community simultaneously attracts and repels most of us. We long for the life-affirming benefits that community can bestow, but we resist the demands that community makes. No wonder that we find it difficult to know what to do with passages such as this one. In an early chapter of her book Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), biblical scholar Rita Halteman Finger surveys a range of interpretive approaches that have concluded that Christians should not take the communal ethic described here and in Acts 4:32-37 as normative. Interpreters since the Reformation have proposed that Acts offers a symbolically idealized portrait of communal life, that these verses describe practices that were necessarily short-lived and limited in scope, or that such practices are simply unworkable in a modern context. Finger's point is that a lot of us instinctively chafe against these descriptions because we recognize that have a lot to lose in such a situation. So much tempts us to dismiss these verses as quaint, even as we claim to yearn for such conditions as a sign of God's reign among us.

It is important to acknowledge that Acts, taken as a whole, does not hold up this depiction of corporate life as central or primary in the church's experience. It may represent the best of what God's people are capable of, in the power of the Spirit, but after Ananias and Sapphira defraud the Jerusalem community in 5:1-11 one looks in vain for any description of community life that approaches the radicalism seen in Acts 2. This does not mean that hospitality, charity, mutuality, and worship are not characteristics of the communities that the Spirit still creates; they are, and they continue to be commended elsewhere in Acts. But Acts likewise concedes the flawed nature of believers and their struggles to achieve and maintain unity.

The description given in Acts 2:42-47 suggests what the Holy Spirit can do. These verses do not lay down rules or specific structures for Christian living. In their context they indicate that the reign of the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ creates the potential for mutual service that embodies God's justice. The life and work of a Christian community can reflect--even if only dimly--the reign of God that Jesus proclaimed while on earth and secured through his death, resurrection, and exaltation.

This passage presents a summary filled with generalizations, yet several details prove instructive. The community of faith in Jerusalem lives a multifaceted witness, one not restricted to a single place or mode. This witness manifests itself in houses and in the Jerusalem temple. It benefits its members and earns the admiration of outsiders. The community exists not for its own sake, but to care for its most vulnerable members and to be a means by which God extends salvation to others (v. 47).

It is noteworthy that this sketch of corporate life describes a state of affairs for which others in the ancient world longed. Terminology in this passage echoes other Greek philosophical writings that describe an ethic of friendship and mutuality that can be realized through ideal social and political arrangements. Some elements of the text also recall promises made in the Old Testament about the just society that God longs to see established in Israel. Certainly, then, this passage paints an idealistic portrait, proposing to ancient readers that Christian community offers the path to such a desirable vision of human existence. But just because an assertion might be idealized or hyperbolic does not mean that it can be easily dismissed. Acts anchors humanity's deepest hopes for community, justice, generosity, and meaning specifically as a result of people coming to embrace the crucified, risen, and glorified Christ as God's designated agent, as the particular means by which God institutes and exercises God's reign within creation. Do not assume that this passage celebrates community or the church for its own sake. The community of faith exists as an extension of the ascended Lord Jesus' commitment to bring salvation to the world.

The challenge for preachers, of course, is getting communities of faith to believe this about themselves--and about God. Congregations are easily frustrated in their attempts to build community that functions as an authentic expression of the gospel, even if it must remain a flawed expression. But it is an empowering thing to realize that Christians are not left to their own devices in creating such an environment. The ministry of God's reign that Jesus inaugurated during his life and secured by his death, resurrection, and glorification is not merely a thing of the past or a faint hope for future days; it continues, sometimes barely perceptibly, in the corporate life of communities of faith. It is important to underscore that Acts 2:42-47 describes a community of faith that operates in the power of God's Spirit. The virtues of justice, worship, and mutuality are not accomplishments of extraordinary folk; they are signs of the Spirit within a community of people who understand themselves as united in purpose and identity--not a dispersed collection of individual churchgoers. This is not to say that the members of a community of faith bear no responsibility for living in a way that displays God's reconciliation. The audacious claims of a resurrection faith demand such boldness from us.