For our New Testament reading today, I did something I don’t do very often and decided to include the whole of Acts chapter 4 for the lectionary verses, which are verses 32-35. For longer readings like this, it can help to close your eyes and imagine the scene, let the drama play out in your mind’s eye. The context of the verses we read is always important, and today, especially so. We find Peter and John engaging in the ministry of the early church, today picking up their story just after they healed a man who was unable to walk. Let’s listen in, beginning at Acts 4, verse 1…
While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, 2much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. 3So they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. 4But many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand.
5 The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, 6with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ 8Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, 9if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, 10let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. 11This Jesus is “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.”
12There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’
13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus. 14When they saw the man who had been cured standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. 15So they ordered them to leave the council while they discussed the matter with one another. 16They said, ‘What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. 17But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.’ 18So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; 20for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.’ 21After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened. 22For the man on whom this sign of healing had been performed was more than forty years old.
23 After they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24When they heard it, they raised their voices together to God and said, ‘Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, 25it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant:
“Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things?
26 The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.”
27For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, 28to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. 29And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, 30while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’ 31When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness. 32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’). 37He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
When I was in college, I became pretty obsessed with proving to myself through study that Jesus’ resurrection really happened. To me, the most important thing about Jesus rising from the dead was that I could find verifiable historical evidence that this miracle took place.
And I’m grateful for teachers and companions on my faith journey that met that desperate need in me with compassion. It still feels important to me that what I believe is rooted in history, and my study did help satisfy my genuine intellectual curiosity as I scoured the pages of Christian apologetics books to make my case, mostly to myself.
All that to say, I find it interesting that those with power in this passage do not seem concerned that the apostles would prove with logically-outlined, evidence-based arguments that Christ’s resurrection had really happened. There doesn’t seem to be a concern from those who arrested Peter and John that people are going to start believing intellectually that this miracle took place. “What will we do with them?” said the rulers, elders, and scribes. “For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. 17But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” People seem to know already the claim that Jesus has risen from the dead, for that is how people are being healed through the apostles. So what exactly are those with power so afraid will spread among the people?
To find our answer, it’s important to note that wealth inequality during this period was extreme. Commentator Roman Montero writes that “the vast majority of the population were desperately poor, living near or at a sustenance level, with a few people living at a level which we would today, rather anachronistically, call ‘middle class’… and even fewer elites. Those who won the birth lottery,” Montero writes, “would have had more resources than they could consume in several lifetimes at their frivolous disposal while a huge peasant class teetered on the verge of starvation.” (Montero, Roman A. All Things In Common. Eugene, OR. Wipf and Stock Publishers.) This extreme wealth of a few depended on keeping large masses of people in poverty.
And here’s the rub for those hoarding all the wealth and power. We learn in this text that preaching Christ’s resurrection in the early church came inextricably linked with a complete reordering of the community’s material and economic life together. “With great power”, the text says, “the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” And then in the very next breath: “There was not a needy person among them.” The utter totality of the descriptive words in verses 32-35 makes the material reality of resurrection community plain: ALL of them were of one heart and soul, NO ONE claimed private ownership, EVERYTHING was held in common, AS MANY AS owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold, and it was distributed to each as ANY had need. As Montero puts it, “if Christianity was not concretely changing how people related to one another, socially and economically – then Christianity was not being fully represented.” (Monterey. All Things in Common.)
So, the wealthy and powerful 1% were not concerned that people might believe in their hearts or intellectually in their heads that Jesus had risen from the dead. What terrified them was the radically transformative social order that accompanied the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection. For that kind of resurrection community would disrupt their hoarded positions of power. Because in the early church, resurrection was not so much a doctrine one had to convince themselves to believe, but a new reality that God’s people put into practice in their relationships, with their money and property, in the lived context of their community. A new reality where wealth was no longer a weapon to perpetuate the violence of poverty, but rather medicine to redistribute to everyone for healing in the beloved community. A new reality where the boundaries dividing rich and poor died, and up from the grave rose new ways of joining, connecting, and coming home in the family of God. (Idea of money as medicine comes from the book “Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance” by Edgar Villanueva)
This is the kind of shocking story Scripture that I would frankly like to just turn into a metaphor for my own comfort. But instead, today, I’ll ask a question that I promise you is first a question to myself: Is our calling as a Christians to serve the poor? Or is it to reorder the entirety of our material lives so that resurrection becomes real and no one is poor? There’s a part of me that wants to temper this passage by saying, “Now I don’t mean that you’re supposed to…” [insert a whole bunch of radical ideas here]. But I’m not going to. Instead, let’s just let our imaginations run wild with ideas the Spirit may be bringing to mind.
To spark our imaginations, I wanted to share with you about a PCUSA church in Minneapolis I learned about this week that is enfleshing Acts 4 resurrection in their context. Hollie’s going to share a link to the article in the chat so you can open it on your browser to linger on and dream about later today! The Rev. Dr. Jin S. Kim, pastoring the Church of All Nations in Minneapolis, writes that their congregation “explicitly reject[s] the demonic claims of American exceptionalism, white supremacy and Christian nationalism. Our members learn the true history of the U.S., a history of violence. We learn that the U.S. modeled itself after the Roman Empire, which is why it continues to crucify the innocent all over the world…” The Rev. Dr. Kim writes that in order to “counteract individualism” in their community, they pool together their resources to buy houses near their church, where almost a third of their congregation now lives, also launching multiple church-based businesses to “exploit capitalism to fund village renewal,” as the Rev. Dr. Kim puts it. “I believe every Christian community can do amazing things if we renounce the evil of Western civilization,” writes the Rev. Dr. Kim “and move toward the kind of kinship and village renewal that Jesus inaugurated.” (“One congregation’s response to American imperialism”, World Mission, April 6, 2021, Church of All Nations in Minneapolis launches church-based businesses to ‘exploit capitalism and fund village renewal’ by the Rev. Dr. Jin S. Kim)
Passages like Acts 4 can be more than metaphors. What could happen if our community of faith embodied this kind of heaven on earth? Whose debts might get cancelled? Who could finally find stable housing? Who could have what they need to pursue that dream they could not afford for the stress of getting enough food on the table? What kind of beloved community might become our shared reality? You heard mention in the announcements that we are looking forward to a celebration of our 50th year as a church family. What might the Spirit be longing to inaugurate in our 50th year of being Longview Presbyterian Church?
And a word of encouragement from me to you: What usually comes up first for me when I consider the small and big ways that resurrection could be real in my life, is a fear of what I’d have to let go of. The wealth that would leave my bank account. The illusion of control I would forfeit. But let’s take a moment to dream about what we would gain. One of my favorite theologians, Willie James Jennings, writes these words to remind us of what awaits us in real, embodied resurrection community: “Money here will be used to destroy what money normally is used to create: distance and boundaries between people. Distance and boundary is not merely between the haves and have-nots, but also between the needy and the comfortable, and between those who testify to Jesus and those who, like Jesus, help those with little or nothing. Jesus will join us and he will use whatever we have to make the joining possible… Too often in our reading of this story our view is clouded by the spectacular giving and we miss the spectacular joining.” (Willie James Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, Presbyterian Publishing Corporation (2017), pg. 50.) A spectacular joining. A beloved community. This is what’s possible, Church. Let the Spirit’s dreams run wild in our midst. Ask God how you can be a part of making those dreams concrete, material, and real. Because then we won’t need to convince people that Christ really rose from the dead. We’ll simply be able to show them. Amen.