Sermon for the second Sunday in Easter
Every year on the 2nd Sunday of the fifty-day Easter season the lectionary has us read this story about Thomas and his doubts. The three-year cycle appoints different resurrection accounts for Easter Day and for each Sunday throughout the season, but on this 2nd Sunday in Easter it is always this text from John. I suspect it is offered as something of a consolation to those who struggle to believe, for while Jesus does bless those “who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” he does not turn Thomas away, but instead meets him in his doubts. There is room for the hard questions and the gnawing doubts; there has been from the beginning.
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That’s all I am going to say on this gospel reading for tonight, as I want to work a bit with the text from the Acts of the Apostles. It is a brief reading of just four verses, but it is packed in terms of what it potentially holds for us. Its setting is early in the life of the Christian movement; after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, and after the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, but before the movement has begun to understand itself as being for all people. It is still a Jewish movement, in other words, based largely in Jerusalem.
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul,” Luke tells us, “and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” You heard that, right? No one claimed private ownership, everything was held in common. “There was not a needy person among them,” Luke continues, “for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.” As N.T. Wright notes, this was a particularly radical practice for Jews, for whom land—particularly inherited ancestral land—was a defining part of religious identity. Yet here, in light of the resurrection and empowered by the presence of the Spirit, these early Christians loosed their individual and familial hold on land and houses and property, and provided “to each as any had need.”
It is a picture that over the centuries has inspired various movements and communities to try to live without individual private property. From its beginnings it has been a cornerstone of the Benedictine monastic movement, though particularly in the Medieval world things often became distorted, with some monasteries becoming very, very wealthy. This gave rise to various reforming movements—the Trappists or Cistercians were founded as a corrective, while the Franciscans were even more radical in their vision of living without private possessions—yet in time even the reforming movements often had to confront their own need for reform. In the Anabaptist tradition there are the Hutterites, but again there is some real history of distortion in that movement as well.
More recently the New Monastic movement has wrestled with these questions of private property and the common community purse. When Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove was here with us back in 2009, he spoke of how living in a community with a common bank account actually helped him to keep things in perspective. He spoke of how easy it would be to convince himself he really needed the latest version of an iPhone—you know, the newest iPhone has all these capacities and features that would be so beneficial to his ministry—but then he’d be sitting with the other members of his community talking about their common life and ministry, and suddenly the ideal of that expensive iPhone came tumbling back down to earth.
Yet there’s this other set of oh-so-human realities that surface among the most well-meaning and committed people. I know of one intentional community that decided that while a full common purse was not going to be a part of their model, they’d covenant together around simplicity. Given that most of the members of this community lived in the same urban neighborhood, they’d arrange to share cars, power tools, lawnmowers, even washers and dryers. After all, why do ten households all need a circular saw or an extension ladder; things the average household only uses a few times a year? And if three households can share the cost of one car, all they need to do is figure out a scheduling system to make that work, right? Maybe everyone will walk or ride their bikes more, and that can’t be a bad thing. Makes perfect sense to me…
But you know, one person’s idea of a clean well-maintained car isn’t necessarily the same as another person’s. No one is sure where that extension ladder got to; I thought it was my day to do laundry; how difficult is it to put the drill bits back in their nicely organized slots? And who put regular gasoline into the chain saw, when anyone should know that it takes a gas and oil mix?
We have no idea how long that early church community managed to sustain its practice of a common purse. Maybe in time the ancient world’s version of seized chain saws and missing extension ladders surfaced, and the ideal began to shift. We do know from Paul’s epistles that Jerusalem’s economy got so bad that part of his mission journeys involved taking a collection for “the saints in Jerusalem.” We also know that Paul was rather committed to earning his own keep—Acts 18 describes him as a tent-maker by trade—and that he was rather impatient with people he characterized as “idlers.” (1 Thess. 5:14) It would seem that the early church was filled with characters no less human than any Christian community that has followed.
Still, this picture from Acts 4 should haunt us a bit, for it shows a community that at least for a time managed to live out something quite remarkable. It is not even so much the specifics of what they did, but rather why they did it: “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.” They had a common heart, a common soul, and their radical practice of ensuring that all would have enough was born of that. As William Willimon states it in his commentary on Acts, “[Luke] was enough of a realist to know that there is a good chance that where our possessions are our hearts will be also.” All the way through his Gospel and all the way through Acts, this is a theme that Luke keeps highlighting. That which is held too tightly, too individualistically, and in a self-justifying way can be our undoing. To again cite Willimon, “Wealth is not, for Luke, a sign of divine approval. It is a danger. The rich young man could not part with his money, and another rich man was declared ‘thou fool’ because of his silly reliance on well-filled barns.”
But you know, sometimes even the apparently right things can be done for the wrong reasons; sometimes simplicity or even the renunciation of accumulation, consumerism, and “stuff” can become a kind of upside-down act of self-absorbed pride. What we need is to be of one heart and one soul… and that is the heart and soul of the resurrected Christ, who continually challenges us to see beyond our limitations, and calls us to be the fully human “made-in-the-image-of-God” creatures we were intended to be from the beginning.
And we need to let this account from Acts 4 shake us; we need to hear it and have our usual assumptions challenged regarding what is necessary, what is workable or practical, and especially what is “mine”. If living in the Spirit as a resurrection people could lead that ancient community into these practices, what might the Spirit be challenging this resurrection people to do and be?