Acts 4:32-37: 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. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 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 apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
Acts depicts the ideal of the Christ-following community and provides a glimpse of the dynamic experiences of a community enlivened by God’s Spirit. What do we do with this story from the early church? Sell up and move into community? Many have been inspired to do so, some successfully, and some where the communities have ended up fractured and dysfunctional. Is the depiction of the early church community a pipe-dream? Maybe a short term response to the hope of Jesus’ imminent return? Or is something else happening in this story?
The commentator Luke Timothy Johnson, says: While many of us go searching through the scripture looking for rules which will tell us what to do, what we find instead, particularly in Luke-Acts, is what he calls a “diversity of mandates”. Christianity isn’t an ethical system that tells you what you’re supposed to do all of the time. Instead, it tells you who you are and through the shaping of that identity you then grow to discern, by the power of the Spirit, which mandate of the many given in scripture is the best one to be followed at a given moment.
Martin Luther King Jr followed a particular mandate of compassion and justice. The world remembered his death this month – 50 years ago on April 4, 1968. Just 2 months earlier he had delivered a powerful sermon, at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he served as co-pastor with his father. The sermon was entitled ‘The Drum Major’s Instinct’ (it’s available on the web to watch – be uplifted by his oratory and content). It features his trademark fusion of radical faith and politics, and calls out the dangers of capitalism, racism and militarism. Towards the end of the sermon, King speaks about his own mortality, and the way he wants to be remembered as one who pursued justice. “Every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. I don’t think of it in a morbid sense. Every now and then I ask myself, ‘What is it that I would want said?’” “I’d like somebody to mention that I tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that I tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness … Yes, Jesus, I want to be by your side not for any selfish reason, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition. I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world”. Two months later, this part of his sermon was played as part of his eulogy at his own funeral.
What strikes me about his sermon is the way he made clear that activism or acts of compassion emerge from and are sustained by faith. His action were not so he could find purpose and identity and fulfilment for himself but primarily about a selflessness shaped by the example of Jesus and the transforming work of God’s Spirit in his life.
Rev. Dr Sarah Bachelard, founder and leader of Benedictus Contemplative Church in Canberra, and an honorary fellow at the Australian Catholic University, has reflected on activism. Yes, she says, there needs to be awareness raising, advocacy, education – all these things are clearly vital. Yet by themselves, they’re not enough. What is also needed is the deeper transformation of persons, where individuals and whole communities let go of certain ways of imagining themselves and others, and build a different kind of community. That’s what was happening in the community in our reading today.
She cites another example: where the Jewish Christian Peter goes to the home of the Gentile Cornelius (Acts 10). It was a radically new way of relating that transcended the divides of religion, culture and tradition. It placed the primary focus on hospitality and a willingness to be vulnerable.
It demonstrated the imperative for followers of the Jesus way to be willing to give up particular social norms and patterns of behaviour and identity formation, and to take up new ways of being, belonging and behaving. It involves a willingness to let go of a constructed ‘ego’ identity with particular social norms and patterns of behaviour, to let go of old certainties, and to be willing to be vulnerable as new ways are practiced and embedded.
Sarah speaks about an example where she attended a pastoral care committee meeting. The agenda was how to ensure that people felt welcomed to the church, how to ensure that new people stayed. At one level, the concern expressed was genuinely for the people: Had they been offered hospitality? Did they feel accepted, cared for? They’re important concerns. At another level, though, I discerned something else driving the meeting’s agenda. Things like: Is our community growing and sustaining itself? Are we being seen as welcoming? Are we living up to our self-image as inclusive, caring and warm-hearted? In this she saw a clear distinction between selflessness in serving others on the one hand, and the concerns of the community to enhance their own identity. The problem is that too often Christian acts of compassionate care and our desire to do good don’t emerge from humility and poverty of spirit. Unconsciously, and despite our best intentions and sincere efforts, often our involvement serves our own needs, or the desire to be seen as “good Christians,” as “worthy and good”.
English theologian Andrew Shanks has identified the issue at stake here. He’s pointed out that when it comes to doing the “right” thing, two motives are, in most of us, deeply intertwined. There is the genuine desire to do justice, and show compassion, and then there’s the desire to find satisfaction in doing the right thing. This second desire, he says, gets in the way of the first. Instead of being genuinely other-directed, our concern is subtly but unmistakably self-centred. The same thing can be seen at times in the way the church speaks in the public arena. Throughout history the church has often been concerned to secure a place in the world, and has often been more a “sign of wealth rather than of poverty and has aligned itself with the rich and powerful on earth more than the weak and lowly”. (Luke Timothy Johnson, Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church: The Challenge of Luke-Acts to Contemporary Christians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), p. 125.)
When the church should be living out hospitality together as an alternative way of life in opposition to runaway and militant consumerism, we instead have become that which we have otherwise been called to convert.
The community of Christ is called to grow in ‘self-forgetfulness’ in order to more fully serve others. It would be good to reflect further on the difference between a self-forgetful church and a church that has forgotten faithfulness. How does the church identify and deal with the confusion between faithful Christian discipleship on the one hand, and ideology and self-protecting religion on the other?
Perhaps the example of the selflessness of the early church speaks to us afresh today – not to replicate the actions of caring and compassion for their own sake as a kind of blueprint of Christian community, but to open ourselves afresh to the God we know through Jesus, and to God’s living Spirit, so in turn we may become ‘self-forgetful’ and to give ourselves selflessly to others following the example of Jesus, so we can ‘make of this old world a new world’. May it be so. Amen.
(this sermon was inspired by and draws on an article, The Ego-Driven Church: On the Perils of Christian Activism 2017)