by Rev. Scott Summerville
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.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Judeans, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit..”
My wife and I have a debate as to what our daughter’s first word was. She claims it was “Ma,” and I say her first word was “Mine! Mine! Mine!” We have lived through a time of extraordinary material wealth and greed. There was a time when people found it natural to do many things cooperatively. People would raise a barn together. People would build a house together. People joined clubs and civic organizations. They put on plays and musicals. They sat on front porches or in backyards and talked to each other. They had family reunions. My parents’ generation, the World War II generation, included all kinds of talented and ambitious people, but that generation tended to place a very high value on community. These are very broad generalizations, and you may have a different perception based on your own life experience, but I have seen with my own eyes and felt in my own heart a change that occurred in our society during my lifetime.
Somewhere along the line – and in a way that most of us were probably not even conscious of – something shifted, and the emphasis on community in all its forms seemed to grow weaker, and the message that came from our culture was: Mine! Mine! Mine! Get what you can. Personal achievement, personal success, and personal material comforts – these are the things that matter. People who invest their lives in things that have no personal benefit to them in terms of their status or comfort, are suckers and chumps.
Again, I am taking the liberty of speaking in very broad generalizations, but I believe there is truth in them.
Today many people are raising the question: is the economic crisis – and particularly the extraordinary greed and recklessness that has come to light during this crisis – an opportunity for us to rethink the message that our culture has pounded into our ears: “Get what you can for yourself. Material well-being comes first; the other stuff you can take care of later.” Many people are now saying to themselves, “Maybe the things I thought could wait until later are the things that mattered the most all along.”
In the season of Easter we hear the strange and remarkable stories of the appearances of the risen Christ to the women and men who were his friends and followers. Noticed today what Jesus says again and again when he appears to the apostles: “Peace be with you – peace be with you – peace be with you.” In the benediction at the end of the worship service we often hear the words: the peace of God – the peace of God – that passes human understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of the Savior Christ Jesus. In these words we declare that this is what matters. There are all kinds of other messages floating around in the world about what matters, but here we say it is the peace of God that matters. Here we say to one another: peace be with you – keep in your heart and mind that knowledge of God’s peace and presence. God’s peace is a binding force; it is a force that draws people together in mutual affection, in mutual care, and in service to the world.
The other resurrection story we heard today is one that may have sounded very strange to you, if you never heard it before. In the time shortly after the resurrection of Christ the followers of Jesus were so excited and so filled with the Holy Spirit and with the message of the risen Christ that they threw caution to the wind; they surrendered all their personal possessions, gave everything away, and shared everything they had.
Jesus told the rich young man who came to him for advice, “Sell all that you have and give to the poor and follow me.” After Christ was risen from the dead, they remember these words, and the early believers just started giving everything away. The result was that, at least initially, no one was in need.
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 4:32-35)
Pretty remarkable. In the book of Acts the writer, Luke, makes it sound like this was an ideal situation. And it does sound like a great idea, until you try to figure out how this system is going to work.
Who is going to keep all this money?
How will the money be invested?
Who is going to check to see whether people did in fact turn over the proceeds from the sale of their belongings or if they put most of it in a Swiss bank account?
Who is going to determine how much each person needs? Will the apostles just take their word for it?
Where will these people live once they sell their houses and give all the money to the apostles?
Will the new people who join the church be asked to sell all their property and goods before they can join the church?
What if someone does not want to participate in the plan? Can they still be part of the church? Can they receive communion? Can they be baptized and have their children baptized?
What if the person has a shoemaking business in their house – should they still sell their house and give away the money, even though they will be giving away their means of livelihood?
You don’t have to think for very long to realize why we don’t hear much more about this plan. Luke tells us about it as if this was the most wonderful thing in the world, but before long he drops the subject. We must assume that this was a short-lived experiment on the part of the early Christians.
We learned well from Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin and Chairman Mao that the only way to get people to relinquish their personal property is to kill a lot of them. That is one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. So many people – so many millions – lost their lives in order to fulfill someone else’s idea of a perfect society.
We might say that Luke tells us a charming story: in a rush of enthusiasm after Jesus was risen from the dead, the early Christians sold or gave away all they owned, pooled their resources; everybody was happy. It apparently did not work for them, and we know that it has not worked as a social system. But I would like to take another look at this snapshot today of the first Christians. These people that had such faith and enthusiasm and were so carefree that their possessions meant nothing to them, and they were willing to offer all that they had to see that no one was hungry or in need.
Here we have these idealistic spirit-filled people giving away all they own, caring nothing for bank accounts, homes, possessions – caring only for the community of which they are a part and the needs of every person in the community. Alongside that image we see a snapshot of a modern human being who has swallowed the message of the consumer culture hook, line, and sinker, and who believes that the only thing that matters is personal gain, personal status, and personal pleasure. It may be a myth that people can live in perfect harmony sharing all things, but it is just as much a myth that you can live totally for yourself and still be human. But that is the myth that has seized so many hearts and minds in our age.
The economic crisis we are in challenges each of us to live in that resurrection spirit that led people to use their resources so that none would go hungry. The economic crisis challenges those of us who have the things of this world to consider what is ours and what we possess that is truly God’s and intended to be given and shared. We need to recover some of the community spirit that motivated former generations to value public service and the common good, and to see that a life lived for self alone is hardly a life at all.
I have said many times that we need to learn to read our scriptures with ecological awareness, because nothing less than the health of the planet earth and the well-being of human life is at stake in our time. This past week there were two important items in the news, coming from opposite places on the earth, but deeply connected.
The first report came from India, where leading environmental scientists reported on a new insight into the warming of our planet and the melting of our glaciers. This insight has only come about in the last several years, and it is the awareness that almost 20% of the pollution causing global warming is produced by poor people in tens of thousands of villages who burn dung and other simple fuels in their stoves to cook their daily bread. Scientists have known for a long time that this is very damaging to the health of the children and the adults in the home, but only now are we realizing that the carbon – so called “black carbon” – created by these stoves is one of the major problems in global warming. It is a problem that can be corrected, and correcting it can have immediate benefits, directly to the poor who rely on the stoves and directly to the earth and the rest of humanity.
On the other side of the world, in Washington, DC, two days ago, came the following news:
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration declared Friday that carbon dioxide and five other industrial emissions threaten the planet. The landmark decision lays the groundwork for federal efforts to cap carbon emissions — at a potential cost of billions of dollars to businesses and government. The Environmental Protection Agency finding that the emissions endanger “the health and welfare of current and future generations” is “the first formal recognition by the U.S. government of the threats posed by climate change,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson wrote in a memo to her staff. The finding could touch every corner of Americans’ lives, from the types of cars they drive to the homes they build. Along with carbon dioxide, the EPA named methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride as deleterious to the environment. Even if the agency doesn’t use its powers under the Clean Air Act to curb greenhouse gases, Friday’s action improves the chances that Congress will move to create a more flexible mechanism to do so.
This is history in the making. This is the stuff that will determine what chemicals and pollutants will go into the blood streams of our children and grandchildren. And what is so striking is that the air that absorbs the soot from the simple stoves of the poor also absorbs the pollutants from our cars and our powerplants and is the same air breathed by the rich and the poor.
That image of the early church community sharing everything in common is an ecological parable for this moment in human history. It is no longer a fantasy, a wild ideal; our very survival depends upon this physical and spiritual fact: as earthlings we share this earth and its resources in common.
We hold all this earth in common.
What affects one person’s air or water ultimately affects us all.
The message of the early Christians was: we are in this together.
And that is the truth.
We are all in this together.
Shalom, salaam, grace and peace to you.