Acts 4:32-35


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. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 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. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’). 37 He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.


Matt Skinner, a contributor to the working preacher website said in his commentary on this passage: “Every page of Acts is interested in addressing the question: What does the resurrection of Jesus make possible?” I found the question intriguing and a new way to look at the book of Acts.


This passage and the one like it, earlier in Acts, (2: 44-46 — “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…”) suggest a church of transformed people. The common good took precedence over individual ownership. There was an abiding trust that corporately there would be enough. And, at least for a while, “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.” 


What a wonderful world it would be?


Except it was not sustainable. We may value mutual regard. We may know we should ‘trust in the Lord to provide’ but in real life our willingness to live those ideals is very limited. In the very next chapter of Acts we read about a husband and wife (Ananias and Sapphira) who sold their land. But, instead of laying all of the proceeds at the feet of the disciples, they held some of their profit back. They are each confronted. and both are struck dead. Even with this extreme consequence, Paul’s letters to the early church regularly addressed the ordinary jealousies and divisions that occur in every community. The ideals were there. A threat for non-compliance was there but the transformation of the resurrection had faded. 


Jesus had been killed. The man who had loved them, who had promised new life and who included ‘the least of these’ was gone. Their first reaction was to hide, despair and flee. But then, they realized Jesus’ death was not the end of his love or his promises. Though bereft and threatened, they had hope. They were transformed. 


This is actually a common experience in real life and it happened in the first century. Most of us have had experiences which left us feeling abandoned, lost and confused. Most of us have discovered possibilities that were impossible to see in the midst of a crisis. In the first century, the very people who had been fleeing, returned to Jerusalem. They returned out of gratitude and hope—not by edict. They returned to face danger. Many were still desperately poor. Their faith did not change the secular reality that many were still the ‘‘least of these.’ But they lived in the promises of the Good News. That is the transformative power of the resurrection. 


In the various ‘appearance’ stories in the Gospels, you will find the resurrected Jesus in contradictory forms. In some he is spirit—flitting through locked doors: in one he invites touch; in another, he forbids touch; in some he is eating food, in some he is recognized in a relationship; in others he goes largely unrecognized. But what they all have in common are the various means individuals realize the difference between biological life and Spiritual life. Jesus  was dead. Yet he lives. 


This is more visceral than intellectual learning. It is transformative. Just as you cannot be the same person when you believe you are deeply loved, you cannot be the same person when you realize that love transcends death. But, if you have tasted the feeling of being loved deeply, you know the feeling is more likely to visit than abide. It takes a long time, a lot of maturity, disappointments, and reconnections to begin to feel safe in love. The same is true when the agent of that love is gone. It may be that the confidence that love continues can only come when we live through the loss of what we thought we could not live without—whether that be a parent, spouse, friend or our own health and vitality. But it is well within our ordinary experience to discover resurrection hope. 


Generosity is a concrete expression of resurrection faith and hope.  I wish promises and preaching could communicate these new awareness. But assurances, promises and preaching can only create a framework to help us understand the experience when it occurs. Then, they can only remind us and reorient us when we forget.


After a natural disaster, it is common for people to open their homes to complete strangers. When there is a common threat, we are more likely to bond. For a brief time we get to see the life that is possible when it is motivated by care and regard. Differences which seem so important fade in the face of human need. New community becomes possible. The first century Christians quickly forgot and so do we. In real life, we routinely respond to emergencies and concrete needs.  It is the never ending daily giving that finally wears us out.  


In real life, we all have limits to what we are willing to share. The example of Ananias and Sapphira notwithstanding, threats, guilt and shame are ineffective motivators for transformation. Guilt and fear can evoke compliance but neither are likely to change hearts. The values of regard, sharing and community mindfulness that must be chosen, cannot be forced. 


It is easy to use this story ast a gold standard of the Christian life. But if read just a bit further, we see that is only part of the story of transformation. Under threat, it was easier to bond. Living in the expectation of Jesus’ imminent return IN THEIR LIFETIME made it easier to sell all they had and share. Both circumstances changed. Christianity moved from a Jewish subgroup to the state religion. Many people are still awaiting Jesus’ “second coming” 2,000 years after the promise. The perceived need for mutual support to survive went down and the need to provide for our own security went up. This is an ordinary ebb and flow which directly influences our ability to be generous.


The paradox of love and of our faith is that no matter how desirable, it is way too easy to slide into complacency and entitlement. When we do, our relationships with God and each other suffer. Love takes work and intentionality. A living faith takes work and intentionality. The earliest Christians struggled and so will we. But each time we seek to be generous with our regard and our resources, we add to our own lives and add to others.  Instead of focusing on what we don’t do—or upon our embarrassing unwillingness to let go and let God, focus upon moving in the direction of trusting God.  Move in the direction of what really matters.  God knows better than we that we are frail creatures.  That has not stopped God from loving us.  


We need to be reminded of what is possible. We need to reorient. We need to do the work. Each time we exercise these spiritual disciplines, bit by tiny bit, we move closer to what is intended for us—no matter how often we backslide.  Let it be so.