Commentary on Acts 2:42-47
Three thousand new believers may sound like an evangelist’s dream, but think of the chaos.
Those baptized on Pentecost came from different regions, speaking different dialects. Some may not have shared the native languages of others, in spite of a shared Jewish faith. There would have been distinct food preferences and different levels of financial security. There would have been different prejudices to navigate, different interpretations of Torah and different political proclivities. Just when one was beginning to learn the names of those seated at dinner, new faces would appear. Daily, the text says, “the Lord added to their number” (verse 47). It is an inherently unstable situation.
It was our church’s Women’s Society president who brought the problem home in a recent Bible study. “Someone must have been doing a lot of cooking,” she said. “Breaking bread” every day is hard work for those in the kitchen, particularly if the guest list keeps fluctuating. She had her eye on the logistics—the common sacrifices required to share a common meal. “It’s not just that it would have been expensive,” she pondered. “It would have taken so much time!”
Similar to English, the Greek word for “common” (koinos) has multiple connotations. It can refer to things commonly held or shared, as in, they “had all things in common” (Acts 2:44). But it can also mean things that are not set apart or holy. Common things are ordinary things, unconsecrated things, or even unclean things. Willie Jennings plays on this double meaning when he speaks of the “common reoriented”1 following Pentecost. The community is reoriented toward divine love through the resurrected life of Jesus. But this divine love is lived out in common ways—ordinary ways. Acts speaks of “wonders and signs” (verse 43), but in this passage, the signs described are common choices about food, time, and money. The common, “unholy” stuff of life is reoriented for the purposes of God. Apostolic teaching is important, but so is community fellowship. The material act of eating together and the spiritual labor of praying together are both seen as marks of faithfulness. All of life is drawn into the Spirit’s tether.
Luke is recounting communal memory in these verses, and a church’s stories of “the way things used to be” are often idealized. There has been much scholarly debate about how seriously to take this description. Selling one’s possessions to provide for those in need may seem like a radical act to many, as does “common” ownership of goods. But Western surprise over shared possessions is less surprising in other parts of the world. In my years teaching in the South Pacific, for example, there was a fluidity to the concept of ownership that allowed possessions to flow through the community to those in need. Furthermore, Luke doesn’t seem overly interested in painting a rosy picture of the past. This description of unity and public “goodwill” (Acts 2:47) is followed quickly by stories of persecution and communal discord (Acts 4:1-22, 5:1-11). Luke does not seem to be describing a utopia—which makes these fragments of memory all the more compelling.
What I find most remarkable is the picture Luke sketches of a community that is actively forming its members through practices of faith at the same time that it remains open to newness and change. It is a balancing act that any Christian educator knows, whether working in a seminary or a congregation. The goal of faith practices is to produce a distinct identity, to develop a shared vocabulary and set of priorities, to build a community that can carry each other’s joys and burdens. The problem is that such formation can often create a rigidity of form, a settled script of behavior, and a lack of porousness in the communal boundary. In other words, such formational communities are precisely the kind of communities that have trouble with people being “added to their number” daily. They can struggle making space for difference. And yet, Pentecost gave the early church a community that was full of difference, a community that needed to build a common life even as it changed from day to day.
These last three weeks in Working Preacher, as I have reflected on the sermons in Acts 10 and Acts 2, I’ve used the lens of performance to tease out exegetical insight. Performance, in this case, doesn’t mean play-acting. It means paying attention to the sermon event—how sermons intersect space and time. My premise has been that these preaching acts are not designed to give us a homiletic form to follow. Rather, they describe the disruptive, life-giving presence of the risen Jesus on the act of proclamation. They show us the Spirit-mediated marks of Jesus’ activity in the world.
I would use a similar lens to interpret this description of the early church’s performance of faith. The formation of a shared identity is part the church’s challenge, but so is an openness to its resurrected Lord. Since Jesus keeps pouring out the Spirit on those outside the community’s borders, difference and communal transformation become theologically meaningful. They become part of what it means for the church to show its own Spirit-mediated marks of Jesus’s activity.
The borders of the church—its identity and character—have substance. They can be seen and described in this text. And yet, as the text also makes clear, these borders move in time. They respond to the new face at the table. They learn new scripts and live into new roles. They make room for those that are different, even as they stand “together” (vs. 44) in worship, service, learning and fellowship. They are open to the surprise of the Spirit and to the awe-filled work of God’s salvation – even God’s salvation of the borders themselves. These are borders that perform, and through God’s help, perform faithfully.
- Willie Jennings, Acts (Louisville: WJK Publishers, 2017), 39.
May 3, 2020