This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter, given in the “church up the road” and the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is Acts 2:42-47.
Some funny things happen when Christians read the book of Acts. I’m thinking of two trends in particular; one is that people read descriptions of the very early church – like the one we heard today – and assume that because that’s how it was then, that’s exactly how the church should be, always and everywhere and for everyone. And the other is that people read descriptions of the very early church and see in them exactly what they most value or want in their own church experience. (Which is why, for example, you can have groups as far apart in their habits as the Orthodox and the Messianic Jews both saying that their own practice today is not far removed from what’s being described here. For myself, of course, I’m quite certain that the prayers these early believers devoted themselves to, sounded remarkably like something from a Book of Common Prayer…)
Put like that, of course we can see the silliness of reading this book through the filter of our own assumptions. The truth is, of course, that we simply don’t have enough specifics here to be very certain of the details of what happened; we’re deliberately given a bigger picture to work with. And that means that justifying our own preferences, or trying to read this text as if it was an instruction manual for church, are not really valid or fruitful things to try to do with this passage.
So what can we do with it?
Let’s start here. This little summary of the fledgling church’s life comes at the end of the Pentecost story. The earlier part of chapter 2 tells us about the coming of the Holy Spirit, and Peter preaching to a crowd in a way that led to about three thousand baptisms. And then we get this little bit, which tells us how that new group of believers began to live together. So this description is being put forward to us as “what happens when the Holy Spirit is poured out on a whole bunch of people.”
And what we see is that that bunch of people – who had nothing in common with one another before the Holy Spirit got hold of them – devote themselves to a number of activities; learning from the apostles, fellowship, breaking bread together and praying together. And while we don’t know exactly what that looked like for them, what we can recognise is that all of these are things which deepen relationships. In being devoted to learning together, eating together, praying together, and otherwise sharing a common life – even a form of common property – these early believers expressed their devotion to their relationships with one another and with God.
These acts of devotion are all acts of participation in a community; which here has to be read as something deeper than just getting along in life beside one another, and more like “mutual participation in a shared life.” The level of sharing happening here – in this group of about three thousand people, remember – is, the historians tell us, unlike anything else in the ancient world. It most closely resembles the level of unity formed when a couple come together in marriage; (which perhaps sheds new light on Paul’s reflections on the church being one body).
I don’t think we understand, today, how deeply shocking this was. This was a society where various divisions – men and women, slave and free, Jew and gentile – kept people in separate spheres of life with very limited, and controlled, interaction. For slaves and free people to share a meal together as equals was unheard of, a scandal.
To give you some idea of how far we’ve come, let me use a story to illustrate. Now, I wasn’t witness to this, although it was told to me as a true story, so I’m not going to name names just in case facts have been embellished along the way. But the story goes that, not so long ago, and not very far from here, a bishop in a denomination which doesn’t yet ordain women came out to visit a parish. The parish priest hosted the bishop for lunch, and invited another key parishioner – a man – to be present. And while these gentlemen were sitting down at lunch together, the lay pastoral worker in the parish, a woman, ate on her own in the kitchen, since apparently she wasn’t important enough to eat with the bishop.
Today, to us, that’s deeply shocking; not least because we have inherited these stories of the believers sharing meals together since the dawn of Christianity. But in the ancient world, the opposite was shocking, and everyone sharing in common was felt to be subversive and socially dangerous. And yet these early Christians did it, and apparently did so with joy and generosity and no social self-consciousness at all (that did creep back in later, as we see reflected in some of the epistles).
So what is it that not only allows, but drives, this level of radical community? I think there are two key things. One is trust in God. These people have had a personal experience of God’s love and joy which is so deep, and so personally significant, that it gives them the courage and resilience to form new ways of life. And there is hope; these people have seen the beginning of the fulfilment of God’s promises, and together they look for those promises to continue to be fulfilled in this new community. Everything this passage tells us about the depth of relationship these people shared, is only possible because of God’s active and transforming presence in these people, and God’s purpose stimulating them to a shared vision of what their life should be.
The gladness and generosity of this group of people is a reflection of God as they had encountered Him; a generous God, a God who poured Himself out abundantly in the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We become like what we worship; and a generous God shapes a generous community. And their gladness in it shows us that this was not a burden or an onerous thing for them, but something they experienced as good and life-giving.
So it seems to me that when we read passages like this, the question for us is not how we might most closely mimic exactly what this community did, but, like them, how we might most closely relate to one another in the presence of God, so that we might have the same kind of devotion to our relationships with one another.
I’m not going to suggest that I have definitive answers to that. I might make some tentative suggestions for you to consider; one is that, when the Bible study “for beginners” finishes in a few weeks, that the group who’ve been meeting for that might continue to meet and learn together, and perhaps invite more people to join them in that. Another is that we might give thought to how to enrich our shared prayer life beyond our regular services; I’m always happy to make suggestions and provide resources. And while I’m fascinated to see how Hungry Souls is taking off as a group, I wonder also about other ways to share the fabric of daily life, its ups and downs, its cares and joys, in ways that really build a sense of sharing our lives together.
This passage from Acts doesn’t give us a neat list or a blueprint for exactly how we should be church. But it does give us a vision of a community of deep relationships, and suggests that whatever else God is up to, our relationships are always part of the Holy Spirit’s core business.