Sermon for April 12, 2009, Acts 4:23-35
Have you heard the good news?!? Let me tell you-Easter is not over the week after Easter Sunday! Easter is not just one day, but it is a season that lasts fifty whole days-until Pentecost, the birth of the church. The birth story and early beginnings of the church are chronicled in The Acts of the Apostles, i.e. Jesus’ missionaries.
In the ancient church, the Great Fifty Days was a time set aside for learning about and celebrating what it means to live as a baptized Christian. Today is the second Sunday of Easter and the beginning of a journey we take from the cross, in which we try to understand what Jesus’ resurrection means for our faith.
Let us mark the Easter Season with the following call and response: I will say “Christ is risen!” and you will respond by saying, “He is risen indeed!” (Repeat 2 xs)
That is what Peter and John were proclaiming to the people gathered in the temple in Jerusalem-Chris is risen, he is risen indeed! They are proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and they are living out Christ’s resurrection. One of the first things they do upon entering the temple at the start of Acts 3 is heal a man who has been lame from birth. The lame man is sitting at the temple door asking for money and Peter says to him: “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk. And they pick the man up and immediately the man’s feet and ankles become strong.
The man is so overjoyed he jumps in the air and walks into the temple with them-leaping and praising God. The folks inside recognize the man as the one who sat in the doorway asking for money. And they are immediately filled with wonder and amazement at the man’s ability to walk! Throughout the rest of the chapter, Peter and John preach about the God who in Christ transforms and heals others with a powerful and unstoppable love.
This event, however, doesn’t go unnoticed by the priests, the captain of the temple and the Sadducees. Acts 4 opens with the authorities becoming very annoyed that Peter and John were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. So Peter and John are arrested and brought to trial before a council of chief priests and elders.
Peter and John, filled with the Holy Spirit, call forth the cured man as their witness and explain to the council: “Let 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.”
After hearing their words and seeing the man who was cured, the council concludes that there was nothing they could say to oppose Peter and John. So the chief priests and elders order the men to leave the council to discuss the matter in private. The council decides to let Peter and John off with a warning that they are to never speak or teach about Jesus’ resurrection. But when the council shares their verdict, Peter and John refuse to comply, saying “We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” After threatening them again, the council lets Peter and John go. The council can’t find a way to punish them because of the people who are already praising God for what Peter and John have done in the temple.
This morning’s scripture reading continues the rest of the story… (Mary Lou Stubbs, Elder of the Day, reads v. 23-31 and Andy reads 32-35)
The TV show opens with a viewer in a car driving slowly through a New York neighborhood of neat, bungalow houses and nicely manicured lawns before cutting to a man and woman-Archie and Edith Bunker-sitting at a piano and belting out the song “Those Were the Days:”
Boy, the way Glenn Miller played./Songs that made the hit parade!/ Guys like us we had it made./Those were the days!
The theme song set the tone for the ground-breaking sitcom All In The Family in which the middle-aged, blue collar, uneducated, bigoted and foul-mouthed Archie Bunker struggled with the challenges and changes in the American landscape during the 1960s and 1970s, all the while longing for a world and time in which things were clearer, simpler and easier to understand.[i]
Every episode focused on a particular change occurring in the country at the time-the opposition to the Vietnam War; the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr.; the downfall of the Nixon administration; the strong push for equal rights for blacks, women and gay people, a rise in unemployment and poverty, the sexual revolution, the creation of birth control and abortion clinics; the emergence of Latino immigrants, and calls for gun control-each of which would send Archie into hysterics. Often he would get into colorful arguments with his only child Gloria and her educated, political activist and unemployed husband Mike, aka Meathead :
Archie Bunker: If they want their rightful share of the American dream, let ’em get out there and hustle for it like I done.
Mike Stivic: So now you’re going to tell me the black man has just as must chance as the white man to get a job?
Archie Bunker: More, he has more… I didn’t have no million people marchin’ and protestin’ to get me my job.
Edith Bunker: No, his uncle got it for him.
During the course of All In the Family’s impressive 9-year run, viewers realized that there was more to Archie Bunker than just a grumpy ole man. Archie was trying to find meaning in his life amidst all of the change in the world.
He discovered, over a long and difficult journey, that his desire for “the good ole days” kept him stuck in an imaginary past which denied the realities of living in the present. For Archie, yearning for simpler times seemed a lot more productive than trying to live in a complicated world filled with things that were new and difficult for him-seeing a black family move next door, discovering a friend was gay or realizing that President Nixon was a crook.
Bono, the social activist and the lead singer of the rock band U2, once said:
My understanding of the Scriptures has been made simple by the person of Christ. Christ teaches that God is love. What does that mean? What it means for me: a study of the life of Christ. Love here describes itself as a child born in straw poverty, the most vulnerable situation of all, without honor….God is love, and as much as I respond in allowing myself to be transformed by that love and acting in that love, that’s my religion. Where things get complicated for me, is when I try to live in this love. Now, that’s not so easy.[ii]
Living in the love of the resurrected Christ is not easy. It wasn’t for Archie Bunker, it’s not for us, and it wasn’t for the folks of the early church.
The chief priests and elders are annoyed as Archie Bunker that the world around them is changing. They’re not happy about Paul and John talking about Jesus’ resurrection and healing people in the name of God’s love. The chief priests and elders long for the “good ole days” before Jesus came along, the days when everyone was happy, well taken care of and followed the rules in scripture. Of course, those days never existed but in the minds of the authorities who are weary of living in the present-of seeing first-hand the reality of a world where many continue to suffer under religious impropriety and Roman oppression.
There are those of us in the present age who also long for simpler days in an ever-changing world-the days when everyone got along and took care of one another, when people were decent, trusting and hard working. Those times also existed solely in our imaginations. Many of us today deny the reality of the present and our role in the problems and suffering that occurs on a daily basis. Alan Padgett, a theology professor in Minnesota, observes:
We live in a consumer culture that is dominated by capitalism and major corporations…Materialism is on the rise everywhere today…It has become very common in North America to think in terms of the bottom line in every area of life. For many of us, any other way of thinking about our problems becomes somewhat alien, standing in need of justification in the face of the “natural” interest in efficiency, economic planning and sound fiscal policy. [iii]
Many people are weary of living in the present-of seeing first-hand the reality of a world where hundreds of thousands continue to suffer under a greedy and dominating consumer culture.
But the Easter God has always had a way of showing us the truth-of getting in our faces to reveal the transformative power of love, which has entered the reality of the present and is leading toward the hope-filled future. The Easter God does this by calling people to embody the life of Christ by forming a new family-the church. The mission of Peter and John and the apostles in the Book of Acts is to be a community of the followers of the risen Jesus. And those early Christians, says one author, were “a living, breathing expression of a new resurrected reality that had broken into this world-twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.”[iv]
The early Christian community was living in God’s love. The believers, according to Acts 4:32-35, “were of one heart and soul and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…There 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. They laid it at the apostle’s feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
Peter, John and the rest of the early Christians were not trying to create an ideal church or utopian community or a perfect world. They were simply living in God’s love and living out Christ’s resurrection through peace, abundance, generosity and justice. The preacher Rob Bell puts it this way:
Instead of building towers and forcing others to make storehouses out of bricks so that some are stockpiling while others are slaves, this new movement is ruled by generosity. And compassion. And sharing. The gospel for these first Christians is an economic reality. It’s holistic and affects all areas of their lives. It’s an alternative to the greed and coercion of the empire.
And (later in Acts, the apostle) Paul never stops reminding people of their responsibility to use their wealth and power purely and properly, for the benefit of those who need it the most.
Acts is a story of a movement,
It’s people being caught up in something
that simply must expand,
Because not one city,
no one religion,
no one perspective,
no one worldview can contain it.[v]
It seems impossible to think that we could live in God’s love and live out Christ’s resurrection in the same way as the early Christians. For all of us to be of one heart and soul; to not claim private ownership of any possessions, but hold everything we own in common; and to sell our homes and land and distribute to those in need is very overwhelming. Where do we even begin to start living like that? Is it practical?
Well, yeah, actually, it is. Ok, maybe it’s not likely that every single person on this planet or just the U.S. is going to pool all of our resources together and share nicely with others. But what is happening is that more and more people, in these hard times, are living in God’s love and living out Christ’s resurrection by being in relationship with others. People are living counter culture, putting the needs of others first before their own. They are striving to be a community of one heart and soul.
Some powerful examples have been highlighted recently as part of NBC Nightly News’ “Making A Difference.” The segment has gained popularity over the last few months due to news anchor Brian Williams’ request of viewers to send in stories of people doing good things, random acts of kindness. The news agency has received thousands upon thousands of stories:
- Like the one about the anonymous local business owner who paid for everyone’s meal (including the server’s gratuity) at a diner in Petoskey, Michigan
- Or the trailer hitch company in Humboldt, Kansas who, when business was down, chose to pay its employees to spruce up the town (repairing local baseball diamonds, fixing sewer grates and painting churches) instead of laying folks off.
- Or Ann Mahlum, a 28-year-old woman and jogger from Philadelphia, who on the night before she was to begin her dream job in communications, gave it up to start a successful running club for the homeless called “Back on My Feet.”
- Or the SAME (So All May Eat) Café in Denver, Colorado where people only pay what they can afford. Those who can’t afford a meal such as the homeless, the unemployed or the working poor pay nothing or they give back by cooking in the kitchen, wiping down tables or sweeping the floors. And others, who still have jobs and paychecks and are not asked to pay a particular price, usually make a donation that is double and triple the cost of the meal anywhere else in town. [vi]
These are just a few examples of how people are coming together as one heart and soul in the midst of two devastating wars and a grueling economy. I know there are many more stories in these very pews and in this community of people who are living in God’s love and living out Christ’s resurrection. And all of these stories connect and weave together until they become one whole story about the body of Christ-about God and us. As Bono and U2 say in their classic hit “One”:
One love, one blood, one life, you got to do what you should.
One life with each other: sisters, brothers.
One life, but we’re not the same.
We get to carry each other, carry each other.
May grace be upon us all in this Easter season as we become of one heart and soul, as we discover together what it means to live in God’s love and live out Christ’s resurrection…in the name of the One who is risen, who is risen indeed! Amen.
i. Cynthia M. Campbell, “Pastoral Perspective” on Acts 4:32-35 from Feasting On the Word, Preaching the Revised
Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide, 2008
ii. Bono of U2, from One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters To Those Seeking God by Christian Scharen, 2006
iii. Alan G. Padgett, “Theological Perspective” on Acts 4:32-35 from Feasting On the Word, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide, 2008
iv. The New Conspirators: Creating the Future One Mustard Seed At A Time by Tom Sine, 2008
v. Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile by Rob Bell and Don Golden, 2008
vii. One by U2, 1993