Sunday, May 3, 2020

All Things In Common

May 3, 2020 – Easter 4A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here (sermon at 19:50).

“All things in common.” Our reading from Acts tells us that the early Christian community was so fully united in heart and mind that “all who believed were together and had all things in common.” Imagine that. When someone joined the church, they would sell all that they had and give the proceeds to the common purse so that the shared resources of the whole community could be distributed according to everyone’s need. No one was left out. There always was enough to go around.

This is as much a theological statement as an economic one. Imagine what it must have required of every participant to let go of the concept of what’s mine and what’s yours—what I brought to the table vs. what you brought—in order that they might hold all things in common. Much has changed over the last two thousand years, but one thing that hasn’t changed is human nature. People were just as greedy, defensive, selfish, and untrusting back then as they are now. The Bible wants us to recognize how strong and real the faith of the early church was, and it wants us to wonder why the same isn’t true anymore. When did the church stop requiring all of its members to liquidate their assets for the sake of the Christian community? When did that become the particular characteristic of monastic communities and not the whole church?

Whenever it was, it didn’t take long. I can’t even get “all things in common” to work for my family. I wouldn’t dream of trying that with our congregation. Is your family any better at that than mine? This time of physical distancing has given us the gift of lots of extra time together. Does anyone think that’s made it easier for us to be of one heart and mind and checkbook? In our house, we can’t plan a menu or choose a common activity without provoking a fair amount of grumbling. Can you imagine what would happen if we let all six members of our family have a vote on what we spend our money on?

This phenomenon isn’t unique to the pandemic, of course. How many marriages fall apart because of money? Or maybe a more precise way to say that is how many relationships use money as a currency to weaponize their brokenness? Newlyweds often make even the smallest financial decisions together. In many cases, that’s out of necessity—when even a cup of coffee from Starbucks may upset the budget. Later on, though, spending often becomes spiteful or a source of fear. Will she find out what I’ve bought online if I have it sent to my office? He left me at home with all the kids while he went on a ski trip with his buddies, so I think I’ll help myself to a nice new necklace. If the two who have become one flesh can’t figure out how to align their hearts and their pocketbooks, how in the world did the big, messy, diverse Body of Christ ever make it happen?

The answer is repentance. By that, I don’t mean saying sorry after the fact. I mean turning around from the life you would otherwise build for yourself and embracing a life devoted to God and to the community of faith. That’s repentance, and it’s the kind of transformation that’s only possible with God’s help.

This moment in Acts 2, when we read that the believers held all things in common, comes at the end of a long progression that we have been making our way through this Easter season. Although we won’t hear about it for a few more weeks, Acts 2 begins with Pentecost, when the power of the Holy Spirit comes upon the apostles. Then, Peter confronts the crowd of “fellow Israelites” for their role in condemning Jesus to death. “Know with certainty,” he says to them, “that God has made him both Lord and Messiah—this Jesus whom you crucified.” In response, the crowd is “cut to the heart” and asks Peter and the other apostles what they should do. Peter’s reply? “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Three thousand persons were added to the Christian community that day, and that’s the moment when we are told that they had all things in common.

All of those things go hand in hand—repentance, baptism, forgiveness, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. They are the foundation not only of the Christian faith but of the common life that grows from that faith and that makes it possible for us to hold all things in common—our hearts, our minds, and even our treasure. Repentance isn’t merely saying we’re sorry for the sins we commit—like the selfish expenditures we try to hide from our spouse. It’s turning around from the self-seeking tendency that lives within all of us and resetting our life’s compass according to God’s way, God’s economy, God’s vision for our common life. In Acts 2, Peter wasn’t asking the crowd to repent of driving the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet but from their failure to understand that the Way of Jesus and its repudiation of earthly power was, indeed, the Way of God and the path into God’s reign. When they do that and exchange their own worldview for that of God by being reborn in the waters of Baptism, they receive the animating power of the Holy Spirit, which enables them to do what would otherwise be impossible—to belong to the kind of community that holds all things in common.

Lately, socialism has become a word that either rallies fervent support or sparks vehement condemnation. But, if you think about it, those who embrace it and those who reject it do so for the same reason—greed. Socialists want to pull resources together to make sure that greedy capitalists don’t deny the working class their basic necessities. And anti-socialists argue that greedy decision makers can’t be relied upon to distribute those resources as efficiently as a capitalist system. We can’t work out our differences because we think that repentance is always someone else’s problem. If only they would get their act together. If only they weren’t so selfish. If only they would do their fair share. If only they cared half as much about others as themselves. But the truth is that we’re all sinners. We’re all selfish and greedy—none of us any more or any less than everyone else. It’s just that we like our brand of selfishness better than other people’s. If we’re going to be the community of faith that holds all things in common, whether it’s in our church or in our homes or in our country, all of us need to repent of our own selfishness and ask God to give us the help of the Holy Spirit.

Imagine how quickly and fully our church would grow if we believed that the power of God made it possible for us to have all things in common and be sure that no one’s needs were left unmet. People are hungry to be a part of a community made up of individuals and families who care more about others than themselves. They are willing to give their whole lives to such an endeavor. Imagine how beautiful your marriage, your family, and all the relationships in your life would be if you believed that the power of God made it possible for you to give up your claim on what’s yours and trust that giving yourself over to the cares of others would bring you your best life. Imagine how wonderful and respectable our nation would be if the people of this country believed that the power of selfless love made it possible for all of us to let go of our own particular agendas and embrace the goodness of our common welfare. Imagine it. Imagine all of it. It’s all possible, but it must begin with you and your own repentance.

We don’t always have to agree with each other. Later in Acts, we read about a moment when the apostles disagreed passionately over the issue of Gentile conversion. But they were still a community that held all things in common because their one heart and one mind were filled and guided by the one Spirit. If you want to be a part of that kind of community—if you want your life and your relationships to reflect that unity of identity and purpose—then repent and return to the Lord. Ask God to take your will and make it one with God’s by giving you the Holy Spirit. Make that part of your daily prayers, and God will make it possible.

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