Monday, 9 April 2018

Unity in the Church of the Resurrection Acts 4


Acts 4:32-35

4:32 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.
4:33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.
4:34 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.
4:35 They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.



In todays reading from the Acts of the Apostles we see a vision of a pretty idealized church. There was complete unity. They didn’t consider anything as privately owned, but considered the things they had as belonging to the group. The apostles continued to teach about the resurrection and the needs of all were taken care of.

We should see this as an ideal, and it is an important ideal that isn’t to be over-looked or dismissed too quickly. For those who know about church history, we know that the early church wasn’t always ideal. We wouldn’t have letters like Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians unless there were problems in the church. They had their own conflicts around sexual ethics, marriage, gender roles, how to interact with neighbours of another religion, which teachers were authoritative, and the importance of spiritual gifts. Peter and Paul had pretty serious words about the role of the law and how to include non-Jewish people into the church.

And of course, if you have been a serious member of the church for very long you will have heard your far share or war stories from church-land. The church is often less than ideal. Often our major conflicts happen because of conflicting ideals. Someone desires the ancient roots of the church to be honoured and exemplified. They want to emphasize Scripture, history, creeds, chants, and liturgies. Another wants to be relevant to the society and want practical teaching on ways to make life better, and want more modern music like people actually listen to, and maybe want to de-emphasize some parts of theology that don’t sit well with society. …. But there are more than just those two poles. There are plenty of ideals to fights for.

Some people are tempted to just walk away from the church. That is pretty easy to do in a individualistic consumerist society. As a consumer, I’ll just go somewhere that matches my tastes. … Or maybe I just won’t go at all. Why do I need a community? Maybe I can just worship at home where I can read books I agree with, and listen to music that I like, and won’t have to deal with people I don’t always get along with. .. The issue here is that there is no way in which I’m challenged to change.

While there have been a few hermits in the history of the church, the majority of Christians throughout the last 2000 years have seen being a part of the church as a crucial part of being a Christian. Even hermits would often form small communities or come to the community for certain times of worship. The relatively modern notion of individualism mixed with consumerism has resulted in many feeling that belonging to a church as being unnecessary. For most Christians throughout history, the idea of being a Christian and not being a part of a Christian community was a contradiction.  Being a part of a Christian community has been so important that Cyprian of Carthage in the 3rd century wrote, 
“He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the church for his mother” (from On the Unity of the Church).
 The community, even with all of its problems, has helped shape people to worship God, grow into the image of Christ, and serve the world.

As messy as the church can sometimes be, it is also important to consider the ideal and to be constantly working towards it. When we read about it I think a part of our heart yearns deeply to be a part of that community.

First, we read that “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (4:32). There is something about being with people you are on the same page with. Sometimes we have to dance around each other because we aren’t sure if we are going to accidentally offend each other. Am I going to say something you don’t believe that will make you dismiss me? What if you label me as a fundamentalist or a heretic? We appreciate difference because it helps us learn and grow, but there is something about being with a group of people that you feel you are in-step with. There is a flow. You work as one body.

A.W. Tozer once said, 
“Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshipers (meeting) together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become ‘unity’ conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship”.
 … The church we read about in the early days of Acts were deeply tuned to the risen Jesus and that made them tuned to one another.

We are usually trying to achieve unity by convincing one another that our way is best. If everyone would just agree with me we would have unity. …  I once heard about a man who had a dream. He was walking through an old graveyard where many kings were buried. Suddenly the kings rose out of their graves, clad in armor with their swords in their hands. The kings began to battle each other for dominance. A vicious battle was taking place. Then a figure arrived. It was Christ, and all the kings stopped fighting and bowed their knee to him.[1] … Sometimes we try to achieve unity by trying to make people submit to our way, like the kings all fighting for dominance. But unity is truly found by submission to the reality of Christ.

Now, we would have to discuss what submission to Christ looks like because we sometimes have different ideas about that, but the principle of agreeing to submit to Christ together is an important starting point for unity in the church.

What was the outflow of this unity? What was a major characteristic of this church? “No one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (4:32). We might find this hard to believe, but isn’t this exactly what we see in a healthy marriage? Two people are unified and come together and they consider what they own to be owned together, not as individuals. I would be concerned about a couple that had everything divided up into “his” and “hers”. My assumption would be that there is some blockage to unity and maybe a problem with trust.

This ideal has sometimes been lived out in various Christin communities. We see this in monasteries and convents, and we see it in some communities like some of the Anabaptists (like the Amish). Most of us look at that ideal and there is something that pulls at us, but there is also a fear that prevents us from going through with it. … How beautiful to have that kind of unity, where everything is shared so freely. … But, then our practical suspicion kicks in. How would that work. What if I put in more than someone else and that person is lazy and gets a free ride on what I worked so hard for? What if I change my mind about being a part of that community, how would I leave? … most of us are attracted by this way of life, but we are also afraid of it.

We should also recognize that there was such a thing as personal property in the church. There were some who owned homes where the churches met. This wasn’t exactly Marxist communism.  I suspect it was something more like Julius Nyerere’s vision- He was the President of Tanzania and said he wanted to build a nation where 
“no man is ashamed of his poverty in the light of another’s affluence, and no man has to be ashamed of his affluence in the light of another’s poverty” (Essays on Socialism).
 One of the first things stated about the early church was that, among their numbers, poverty was eliminated. … Sure this was an ideal, but it is beautiful, and why shouldn’t we be bold and creative enough to consider how we might live this way? The resurrection of Christ changed things for them. The whole world was different. Their values and priorities changed.

 Another characteristic of this community is that it was based on the leadership of the apostles and their testimony about Jesus- Acts says, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (4:33). They had attuned themselves to the resurrected Christ under the leadership of the Apostles who Christ had commissioned to continue the work of creating disciples. Earlier in Acts we read a very similar passage to this- “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The testimony and teaching of the Apostles is what we find preserved in our Scriptures. As faithful Jews the Old Testament was their Bible. The New Testament was their additional teaching about Christ and living as disciples of Jesus. That was one of the requirements for a text to be entered into the Bible- it had to be in line with or have a connection to an Apostle. As the church we are still attempting to embrace this ideal. We desire to teach what the Apostles taught in a way that is appropriate for the place and time we are living in. May God grant us such a clarity around who our Lord is that we find unity by attuning ourselves to his love. May our egos lay down their swords in submission to the king of kings and Lord of lords. And may this submission, this attuning, have real and creative consequences for the most vulnerable among us. May we open up our lives to share with one another, perhaps of our treasure, but perhaps our treasure is just symbolic of us opening our lives to one another. Perhaps we can have the courage to pray that God will break down that barrier that prevents us from truly sharing our lives with one another. May God grant us unity of “heart and soul”.


[1] Jordan Peterson

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