“Extravagant Generosity,” Acts 4: 32-37

Up until this point the Book of Acts has followed a pretty basic pattern, there’s a solid, structure I guess is the word, to the story. We opened with Jesus telling the disciples that he was going to leave but that they would be empowered to do similar things to what they had seen him do and that they were going to be tasked with expanding the kingdom that he started. Jesus leaves, the disciples wait, the Spirit comes and empowers them and they begin to do those things. Peter and the other disciples preach and people are moved and convicted and join with them, Peter and John heal a man outside the temple, that attracts attention, they’re arrested and questioned, released, and then they return to the other disciples to pray and to figure out their next move. End of Act 1, right? Like if this is a movie or a play the story is flowing exactly how we’d expect: we’re introduced to our main characters, they’re shown to be special in some way, they’re given some kind of power, they begin to go about their work but someone rises up in opposition and so they have to withdraw and regroup. This is embarrassing but I’ll share it with you, last week I got an email, you know how Amazon sends you recommendation and they personalize them to them? So last week I get an email from Amazon, the subject line of which is “Andrew, don’t miss out, see the latest in Teen Romance today.” Which is not what you’re looking for if you want to build street cred, but here’s the deal: when I was doing youth ministry one of the ways I tried to stay hip and relevant is to keep up with what the young people were doing. What music were they listening to, what movies were they watching, what books were they reading, that kind of thing? Also, the books are excellent. Anyway, my point is, what we see in the first couple of chapters of Acts is pretty basic storytelling; we’ve been introduced to the characters, we’ve seen what they can do, we’ve met the opposition and they’ve been set up as a threat, the conflict that is going to be central in our story has been established and now we’re waiting for the next movement to begin. But before we get that we get this weird interlude here in the end of chapter 4 and continuing into the start of Chapter 5 where we’re going to look next week, where Luke pauses the big story to give attention to a smaller one, he takes a moment to talk about the relationship within this community that’s forming. The big story is focused on how this community is going to deal with the outside world, but its important for Luke that his readers don’t miss what’s happening inside as well.

And what’s happening looks pretty good: the believers share what they have and there’s no one with any need among them. Now if you feel like you’ve heard this before you’re right on the money, if you flipped a couple of pages back in your bible and looked at Acts 2 you’d see a very similar statement. And that’s not the only time, something like this shows up five more times in the Book of Acts, there is obviously something important here that we’re supposed to see and take notice of. Now we talked about this a little bit in Acts 2 but I think we can see a few new things here that are going to be significant to us.

The first may be repetition but it is an important thing to draw attention to, this community is built from the bottom up, not the top down. There is no rule that comes down from the disciples that leads to folks selling their property and giving away what they have, it is purely a matter of generosity. Extravagant generosity, we might say, but generosity first and foremost. It was not a requirement that you sell your property to be able to come in, we’re going to see that unpacked more fully and clearly next week (so if you’re hooked make sure you come back). Now that should come as a relief to us that there’s not a minimum requirement that we see in scripture for belonging to a church or being fully part of the community but it should challenge us as well because it also means there’s no maximum amount of generosity or giving that’s covered. The text says that when the community saw a need they met it. I think a lot of us, if we knew we were really alone and no one would ever find out, wouldn’t mind knowing the most that we might have to give up for God will be. And that’s not just a financial thing, we’d like to know how much of our time we might be called to give, how many late nights we might spend serving on some church committee, how many times we might be asked to choose between a family vacation or a family Mission Trip, how many awkward encounters with folks we might face because of our faith. It would be easy to put a number on what we have to give and plan around that, but when these folks see a need they jump into action and see it met. That’s a much tougher standard than having membership dues, and I think that might be one of the reasons we Luke bring it up over and over again. Why do folks talk about the “good old days?” They bring them up because they see something that was present then that is absent now and they want people to recognize something important has been lost. It isn’t just nostalgia that brings on that kind of talk, it is a recognition that something they thing is important has been lost. In the most conservative estimates Luke is writing about these events 15 our 20 years after they happened. 30, 40, years is not an unrealistic estimate. An entire generation may have passed between these events and the writing of Acts. There’s a good chance that Luke writes about this aspect of the community so much because he’s seen it go away and he wants to remind folks of that ideal because he sees the lack of need that existed in the early Christian community as something worth pursuing. Dismissing it as a “good idea in a perfect world” is easy, pursuing a world without need is hard, but that doesn’t mean we should just brush it aside, Luke saw this as something worth remembering and pursuing and we need to grapple with that.

Another thing we see here is that the early church seemed to have figured out how to appropriately value possessions. Now most of us, if we did a show of hands, would talk a big game about how little we really value our possessions, we would present ourselves as people who know what things really matter. But would that really be honest? I can talk a pretty good game about how the first cell phone I had was a flip phone and I could go back in a heart beat but that is 100% a lie. I love my iPhone and I would not be happy if I lost it. We are, most of us, maybe some of you have this figured out and more power to you, but in the big picture if we look at our world as a whole we realize that we like stuff, no matter how much we don’t want to admit it. Daniel Tosh is a comedian you may have heard of, he has a show on Comedy Central, and he is the person I first heard tell this joke. Now a brief bit of internet research this week revealed he may have stolen it but I’m going to give him credit, he said “money can’t buy happiness, that’s true, but money can buy a jet ski. And I’ve never seen a sad person on a jet ski.” We believe in the power of stuff more than we should. We’re doing the baby registry right now, what do you really need for a baby? Like really? Crib, blanket. People had babies for thousands of years and that’s it. We have spent hours looking at stuff for this registry (but there’s some cool stuff on there, check it out). We value stuff more than we should, we want the newest thing, the biggest thing, the shiniest thing. One of Aesop’s fables talks about a dog with a piece of meat. And the dog is walking along a body of water and he looks in and he sees his reflection, but of course he’s a dog so he doesn’t know its his reflection he thinks its another dog with a better piece of meat so he starts to bark which causes him to drop his meat into the stream or whatever it is and the current takes it away and he’s left with nothing. We value stuff more than we should, this passage is a reminder that it is not what we have but how we treat people that truly matters. The early church believed that it was sinful, it was against the will of God, to have excess when some people had nothing, sometimes it seems like as a society we’ve reversed that and this is a good reminder that if the system is wrong the victims of it aren’t the problem. That’s something that we need to remember, and not just when we think about economics and poverty. We’ve been reminded in the news this week about the dangers women still face in a lot of industries in our country and in the world and confronted by the way victims of harassment and assault are blamed and threatened and silenced. If the system is wrong the victims aren’t the problem and too often we go the other route because its easier than really confronting what’s going on. The early church recognized who deserved blame and who deserved help and we need to take seriously whether we’ve lost that in society.

The last thing I want to draw our attention to here is the reason that is given for how the early church lives. Luke says that the believers were “one in heart and mind.” That phrasing is not unique to the Gospels, it actually comes out of Greek Philosophy. Aristotle talked about this idea and he talked about it when he spoke about friendship. He talked about true friendship as being of one mind and one heart with one another. The reason these early people’s generosity was so extravagant was because their community was so deep. They cared so fully about each other and were so connected to each other that they couldn’t bear seeing a member of their community in need. What’s easy for us to overlook or under appreciate there is that their community involved people in need. Their community was made up of people that weren’t necessarily like them. Plenty of folks are examining how divided our society is becoming, I don’t need to add my take there, but its obvious that when we surround ourselves with people like us we don’t get a full picture of the world. If we avoid seeing need we’ll never feel compelled to deal with it.

It’s a significant thing that Luke uses phrasing from Greek philosophy to make his point because his main audience was Greek which means his use of familiar language almost has to be intentional. He’s painting a picture of an ideal for his audience, he’s telling the folks in the Greek world that read this that what they recognized as the way things should be these early Christians already figured out. And not only did they figure it out, the put it into practice.

We could spend a whole lot of time talking about the way the world should be. What scripture tells us is that the church is our image of how the world should be. That the more we pursue God the more the way the world is supposed to look and be is revealed to us. I doubt we’d find anyone who would say, “yeah, I’d say the world is exactly how it is supposed to be.” Luke said to his readers that what we have is what the world needs, that what we’re pursuing is the hope for realizing a world that reaches toward the ideal. That’s why he keeps putting these little asides in the story, to bring us back full circle, he does it because this is the real story. This is the story we still have to tell. The way things should be is being revealed, and we can act on it and seek it. We don’t have to settle for the way things are. God is calling us toward something more and giving us the tools to make it happen.

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