Commentary on Acts 4:32-35
Something always feels disjointed about our lectionary’s pattern of assigning passages from Acts during the Sundays of Easter. After all, only the first chapter of Luke’s second volume takes place prior to the church’s initial experience of Pentecost. But don’t let that distract you. Every page of Acts is interested in addressing the question: What does the resurrection of Jesus make possible? That’s a topic every preacher ought to take seriously during Eastertide.
By beginning with the brief description of the Jerusalem church’s common life in 4:32-35, our encounters with Acts from this Sunday forward keep us grounded in a stirring vision of community and mutual care. During the coming weeks in our scripture readings we will jump from place to place in Acts and experience bold sermons, daring confrontations, and amazing conversions. All of those stories pull our attention toward the faithfulness and legacy of some of the church’s most visible leaders whose ministry is bent on “turning the empire [oikoumenē] upside down” (Acts 17:6).
Before then, however, we must meet this community of believers in Jerusalem. We have to acknowledge the spiritual vitality shown by a multitude of unnamed and unremembered saints. We have to feel their shared heartbeat of generosity and linger with their willingness to risk. For the community itself, in its unity of purpose and its commitment to protect the well-being of all, especially its most vulnerable members, bears witness to the new life God makes possible through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. There’s always a community, whether you notice it or not.
Preachers should be aware that this is the second of two descriptions of harmonious communal life among the Jerusalem believers. The previous one, Acts 2:43-47, is the conclusion of the Pentecost story. The arrangement of Acts 2 indicates the Holy Spirit’s role is about more than providing polylingual understanding and instilling courage for public preaching. The Holy Spirit pulls people together as members of a community that manifests its newfound salvation in Christ in a corporate existence through its worship, learning, sharing, and service. Consistently in Acts, the story of salvation is a story of belonging.
In Acts 4:32-35 we receive additional information about the believers in Jerusalem. For one thing, they share a single “heart and soul” (kardia kai psuchē). That short phrase reflects an intensity of mutual devotion and shared existence that was part of ancient Hellenistic philosophical discourse about the virtues of friendship.1 In a similar vein, Plato’s Republic (5.462c) envisions a thriving society in which people reject the misuse of words like mine, not mine, and alien. Therefore, the kind of cooperation and interdependent identity that other ancient people hoped to accomplish through a just and ideal political system Acts sees coming into being through a community enlivened by the Spirit to embody the power of Jesus’ resurrection. Hope not for a golden age created by mighty emperors or wise philosopher-kings. Look instead, Acts urges, to the Spirit poured out by the resurrected and glorified Jesus Christ.
A second piece of additional information expands on the depiction of a community that has “all things in common” and whose members willingly sell their belongings so everyone can survive (2:44-45). We learn in Acts 4:34 that some of the more prosperous members of the church sell homes and land to support their sibling Christ-followers. They offer their proceeds to the apostles to manage, suggesting that they are doing more than redistributing wealth; they are willingly handing over status, privilege, and security as well (see also Luke 18:18-30), all for the sake of believers’ common good.2 We see also that this community thrives not only because of the generosity of a few well-to-do patrons; with maybe a dash of hyperbole, Acts 4:32 reports that “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions.” Everyone participates. Everyone dares to show solidarity. Because everyone belongs.
A significant challenge for preachers is to keep the theological energy of this story in the forefront. Overemphasis on generosity and fellowship (koinōnia, Acts 2:42; see also Acts 4:32) as abstractions, ethical yardsticks, or strategies for uniting disgruntled congregations miss the point. Something greater than charity and mission is surging through this passage; believers are living out a commitment to belong to one another, and they recognize they must address the impediments to doing so. As Willie James Jennings puts it, “Money here will be used to destroy what money is usually used to create: distance and boundaries between people.”3 Therein lies the theology. This passage offers a stunning display not of mutual concern but of mutual identity—an identity formed in Christ and his new life.
The lectionary declines to take us into the second half of this story, the dreadful account of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), the self-protective antitypes to Barnabas (Acts 4:36-37). But take note of those verses as you prepare to preach on Acts 4:32-35, just to be reminded of how fragile a task it is to try to give communal witness to the kinds of relationships God desires for human flourishing. Communities are, after all, composed of people like me and you.
Audiences and readers often ask about Acts 2:43-47 and 4:32-35, “Did the church in Jerusalem really live like that?” It’s a fair question, for the stories display extraordinary self-giving and no other passages in Acts or the Epistles describe the same kind of communal dynamics. Clearly these snapshots of the early church represent an ideal, and Ananias and Sapphira’s fears and reluctance are more common than we care to admit. I prefer to answer the question with another one: “How else could this fledgling community have made it?” Surely something allowed a crowd of Galilean transplants and Pentecost pilgrims to find a way to settle down in the big city. How else would they survive? How else could they belong? Surely something about their encounter with Resurrection and Holy Spirit caused them to repent (Acts 2:38; 3:19)—that is, to perceive their realities completely differently. Why wouldn’t that transformation leave them unsatisfied with living lives governed by financial calculations, social transactions, and status-based privileges?
Easter, Acts keeps reminding us, has a way of doing things to people. And that makes all sorts of things possible.
- Commentators frequently note connections to Pythagorean, Cynic, and Stoic teachings. See for example, Carl R. Holladay, Acts: A Commentary (New Testament Library; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), 134.
- The location of the apostles’ feet symbolizes their authority to disburse the funds and likely also their authority or recognized leadership within the community as a whole, at least at this stage in the narrative (compare with Acts 6:1-6).
- Acts (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2017), 50.