“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
Our reading today speaks of a flurry of excitement. It is a story we’ve heard before, the story of the first Christian communities emerging in the wake of the resurrection and pentecost. We’ve heard the story before because it is a story so easily put to use. It can, if needed be used to tell us that if we were really serious about the gospel, we’d look an awful lot more like the first Christians, selling all our property, holding all things in common, living on the edge as it were, without a care in the world, so thoroughly possessed with joy and excitement and trust that the cares of this earth would lose all hold on us. Or, alternatively these passages can be readily put to use to describe to us how thoroughly the message of the gospel should change our hearts, how it should make us ready to do things like this, though of course, this is just a historical account, not a command to us in the present time. We should share the same love, of course, but we need not trouble too much over the details, the selling of all possessions, the actually holding all material goods and money in common.
Both of these uses of the text have something true in them, perhaps. But more importantly, both of them are fundamentally moralistic. They are about either, what good righteous things we really ought to be doing, or what good righteous things we really don’t actually have to do. Either way the passage becomes about what sort of good righteous things we good righteous people out to be doing in order to go about in the world being good and righteous.
But this text is not about morality, or about how the church ought to behave to be considered good and righteous and true in the world. This text, given to us today during the Easter season, is about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and the earth-shattering effect that has on the order of this world as it is. This text speaks of the specific forms of communal life that the early church gave themselves to, but it speaks firstly, of the awe, gladness, and praise that so possessed the hearts and minds of the first Christians that they gave themselves to each other unreservedly.
What strikes me as radical about the form of life described in these passages is not first and foremost their content (though they are radical indeed), but root from which they leap forth. The first Christians sell all they have, share it in common, and devote their lives to unrestricted togetherness (though of course they, like we, will fail at this), and they do so, not from some sort of moral conviction that this is what God really wants from us (after all we’ve always known that God wanted us to love our neighbors as ourselves). Nor do they enter into this form of life out of fear or dread of the impending judgment of God. Nor do they enter into it out of disillusionment with the corrupt and vile world around them in which people care only for themselves and for power and wealth.
No, it is not morality, or fear, or protest against the world that brings the first Christians to radically offer their lives to one another. They are brought together to offer up their lives by awe, by being grasped and possessed by a vision so great, so full of life, so full of love, so full of joy, so full of truth and hope that the things holding them back from one another fell away and became powerless.
And herein lies the great irony and tragedy of how we Christians today so often approach these texts in Acts. The questions that spring to our minds are at once questions of what we either ought to be doing or need not necessarily be obligated to do. And this form of thinking is precisely what is most foreign to the thought process of these first Christians who encountered the message of the resurrection (though to be sure it caught on pretty quickly, just keep reading Acts and Galatians). What we are dealing with in these texts are people who are caught up, whose hearts burn with fire, like the disciples in Emmaus, who don’t know that they should stop and ask what the really have to do because they are so deeply grasped by what sheer joy compels them to do.
What we are dealing with here are people whose vision has been transformed by Jesus’s death and resurrection, transformed so radically that things that sound to us like heavy burdens, yokes too great to bear, to them these things become matters of no consequence, given up and handed over with joy, with gladness, with awe and wonder. What we are dealing with here are people for whom the kingdom is unmistakably real, unmistakably greater than anything else in this world, and alongside which all things in this world lose power and control over us.
What lies at the heart of this text and the story it tells is an event. An event so radical that is sparked a raging fire in the hearts and lives of men and women. This event upended their lives and transformed them into something else, something new. And faithfulness to this event was hard, and these people, even the apostles who proclaimed the message failed to be faithful to it. And this text stands as a witness to that event, the event to which we are always and ever again called to be faithful, the resurrection of the dead. This is the revolution so radical, that when it gets hold of people, the world’s power, the power of death can lose its hold on us, even if only for a moment. We may fall back into the pattern of this world, into the elemental spirits of the cosmos, into law, into a human point of view, but this power still persist and has power to shake us out of bondage and into life, no matter how much we may seek to re-imprison ourselves in the coherent and comforting world of control, security, and power — of sin, death, and the devil.
This text tells a story of how people in Jerusalem in the first century heard a message and experienced a power so radical that they we overjoyed to let go of the things we cling to so readily: possessions, control, power, security, autonomy. They gave these things up, not out of heroism, not out of superior moral fiber, not out of fear, not out of self-righteous disgust at the rest of the world, but out of awe, out of joy, out of delight and gladness.
This awe, this joy, this delight, this gladness was no easy road. It was the road that led to imprisonments and executions, to peril and to poverty, and ultimately, to desolation and to death. It was a road that led to tiredness, to despair, to sorrow and uncertainty. It was a road that demanded the loss of all control and power and security. But it was a road set out upon in delight, in joy, in gladness, in awe, in an unshakeable trust.
I suspect that for us this joy often feels far away. That for us the “real world” of dollars and cents, of responsibility and security, of management and calculation dominates our visions and imaginations. The awe that might lead us to forget all about these things — with joy! — seems very far away indeed. Our awe is fragile, and it fails, just as it failed among these first Christians.
And yet, this story stands as a witness to us, just as our own stories stand as witness to us that this fire did indeed come upon us and did indeed set us free, no matter how far we may stray from that freedom. This story reminds us, yet again, of a revolution so radical that it strips the power from all the things that are most powerful in our imaginations and lives. This story proclaims that this is not simply a possibility or something to aspire to, but the beginning of God’s own liberating invasion of this world of limited visions and failed imaginations. This story speaks of the coming of a raging fire, a fire that converted people from death to life, and that continues to proclaim constant new life in the face of constant death and failure.
This story speaks of a vision of a kingdom that cannot be shaken, that really is all that. A kingdom so glorious that us, even us, can be set free by its vision from all that most deeply holds us back from one another. It reminds of the old heat of this raging fire, a heat ever read to set our eyes alight, to call us back from the false powers, securities, and certainties we have settled for and into the insecurity of joy and self-giving that the resurrection proclaims and effect.
This story speaks of an awe and a joy that was more powerful than any human weapon. But, like our Lord, this awe, this joy was powerful only in its powerlessnes. It could not secure its own survival, it could not ensure that it would win or continue on. Indeed it was most vulnerable in the world of power and death. Those who practiced it to the end were most often killed, and even for those who were not, the road was a narrow one, a hard one, one that tired them out, and from which departure, settling down, settling back in was all too easy.
But this story stands as an enduring witness. That the resurrection does break all powers. That it does set us free from them right in their face. That this is not only possible for us, right now, in our case, but is inevitable. That the Spirit will take our failures and burn through them into freedom. That what might seem like burdern and yoke to us will be transformed, even if by fire, into awe and joy. That the things we most feared giving up will be transformed into the things we give up with the greatest joy.
And we have all tasted this joy. This story witnesses to those moments in all our stories, where the power of the resurrection broke in upon us and suddenly took the power away from all that was once held all power over us. We all remember when the fire came upon us, when we would have gladly parted with all of our possessions, because the kingdom was so real to us. This story witnesses to us that this joy was not something of our doing. Not a blip on the radar of manufactured spiritual experiences, but an inbreaking of the work of God in the world. That this awe and joy that frees us up to give ourselves without reserve is not first a task, but a gift and a promise to which we are summoned. It is the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. And God has promises this to us. New life for everyone!
Do we believe in the coming of that joy again? Do we want that joy again? We are invited by this story today, in the midst of this Easter season to believe in it again, to want it again. To repent from our satisfaction with the cheap imitations. To repent from the seductive thought that we’ve already “done enough.” And we are invited again to discover the cost and call of the gospel, not as demand, not as obligation, but as awe and joy, as new life being unleashed in our midst.
And the good news, brothers and sisters, is that even if we do not believe in this, or do not see it, or misunderstand it, that it is not up to us. For let it be said again that the gospel is not merely a message, but that the gospel is a power. That is the promise and the summons of this resurrection message, the message of constant new life in the face of constant death: that God has come back to us from the dead and will keep coming back to us. That God will never stop coming back to us by the Spirit and shaking us into new life, even when we prefer the security of life well ordered by the power of this age. That the kingdom really is all that, and that it will rule. That our joy and awe, in all their fragility will be the last word, the Amen! to God’s victory over death and slavery. That the old heat will rekindle, ever and again, that raging fire. That our vision will again be transformed, and that all that once held power over us will fall away, and we will walk away from it with nothing but joy and awe, given to the Lord and to one another without reserve. It is to that, brothers and sisters that we are invited here again today, in the light of Easter. It is to that, brothers and sisters that we are summoned. Praise be to the God of life! The God of freedom!