Broadway Christian Church · Columbia, Missouri
The Worship of God · April 15, 2012
Litany of Praise
From Psalm 133
How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Mount Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
World without end. Amen. Amen.
O God, pulsing energy into all that is, stillness beside every sound, grace abundant, light in darkness; you are our God and we are your people. So, in this Eastertide, we experience your fullness in the world. You are present in all things and in our hearts.
Be our guide and the guide for every troubled heart. Be our transformation, transforming every difficult situation. Be our ready hope, for the future belongs to you always.
We pray in the name of the one who is risen and taught us to pray, saying…
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
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.
As the show opens, we watch a car drives slowly through the neighborhood streets of a neat bungalow set of houses. In the background, a man and woman (whom we soon came to know as Archie and Edith) were belting out a song:
Boy, the way Glen Miller played.
Songs that made the hit parade.
Guys like us had it made.
Those were the days!
This theme song set the stage for the hit parody, comedy show All in the Family, in which Archie Bunker, a loveable bigot, struggled with all the challenges of the 1960s and ‘70s, all while longing for a world that was clearer, simpler, and easier to understand.
Playing the nostalgia game, longing for “the good old days,” is often a part of life. A life that relives the days when teenage couples sipped milkshakes at the soda fountain, when families gathered around the radio for nightly entertainment, when men wore hats in public, and ladies only wore dresses.
Playing the nostalgia game is often a part of church life, too. It typically doesn’t take long after you first enter in the doors of a church to encounter this mentality. Folks often rave about “back in the day.” I remember the first congregation I ever served, it never ceased to amaze me how many stories were told to me that seemed like my storyteller was talking about yesterday, until I would soon discover that all these stories had all happened in the 1950s. Stories about how church was full, Sunday School programs began and were packed with adults and kids alike. People would rave about the choir, or, oh, the pride involved in the brand new organ they built in 1956. It seemed like every story was all puppy dogs and rainbows. Everyone just got on board.
Now, I obviously wasn’t around in the 1950s to know, but I can tell you that this description always contains a case of highly selective memory. First, the church in the 1950s was largely white and middle class, a description that ignores significant portions of American religious life. Second, the personal stress and social unrest of the 1960s was already present in the 1950s just below the surface, particularly as women and African Americans moved into higher education and began to push back against traditions of exclusion.
So, anyone who can hum the All in the Family theme song, “Those were the days” knows the trap that such nostalgia represents. On one hand, indulging in nostalgia puts a smile on our face, returning to a memory that is simple and clear. On the other, even the most sincere indulgence in nostalgia contains an undertone of cynicism; most of us really do know that the past was never quite as rosy as we imagine it to have been.
It is against the backdrop of this experience that we come to our text this morning, because it often sounds like nothing more than, “good old days” nostalgia. The picture painted fairly glows off the page in front of us: “The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions. There was not a needy person among them.”
Luke tells us, at the beginning of Acts 4, that the community of believers had grown to about 5,000 members. So in light of this, if we assume that Luke, here in our text, is describing the “whole group” of 5,000 believers. We are left with a truly remarkable statement when our text tells us that they were of “one heart and soul.”
This certainly does not sound like any church group most of us have experienced! Even leaving aside, for a moment, the remarkable willingness to give up private ownership and share with others in need, the vision of a faith community “of one heart and soul” stretches our credulity beyond the breaking point. I just do not know a human community of 5,000 – let alone a church – that was of one heart and mind. In fact, we Disciples of Christ pride ourselves on our unity in the midst of our diversity. One of the things I love best about our tradition is that you almost always find us disagreeing about something.
I remember last year, almost exactly one year ago from this weekend, when I was at the Seventh-Grade “God’s Gift of Sexuality” Retreat. I was speaking fervently about something I firmly believed. Sitting across from me was another adult from Broadway, who said, “Umm. No. I don’t agree,” and went on to give a really good reasoned analysis for doing so. It made my heart smile and sing to see us be able to disagree in front of our seventh graders in such a way that we could hold a wonderful conversation about the issue. So, for us, I really do treasure this disagreement within unity.
All that said, it might be all too easy to dismiss this passage, or even to simplify it to a critique our tendency to romanticize a bygone era, rather than deal with its hard realities. But doing so would overlook the potential of this text to make us think deeply about the effects of Jesus’ resurrection and how it might actually have an impact on our lives.
While I do believe that Luke, the author of the book on the Acts of the Apostles, here offers us a glance of the early church seen through rosy colored glasses, he is also making a particular point. This passage is one of many “summary” descriptions that Luke uses through his writings to remind the reader of the principal themes he wants to develop, as he transitions us to the next stage of his story.
For Luke, Jesus is first and foremost a prophet who proclaims the nearness of the reign of God and who gives evidence of it by healing and preaching that the poor will inherit the earth. The first time that Luke provides us with a “summary” description passage, it’s in the early portions of Luke’s gospel: Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth, where he reminds us about how the poor will inherit the kingdom of God. When you read this “summary” statement, those words should echo in your ears, as he provides this passage as evidence of Jesus fulfilling those very words.
Viewed in this context, our text this morning, isn’t about the particularities of the early Christian community, and whether or not they owned private property, but that selling and giving is how Luke offers us the fulfillment of the words of Jesus about the inheritance of the poor. This is why, I think, he is stating that there was, “No more need among them.”
And upon closer examination of the language chosen in this passage, we can begin to see why it is so critical for our understanding of what Luke is inviting us to be a part of. He is making this claim about Christ on this side of Easter, on this side of the resurrection, and not before it.
His point is while the vigil is over, the resurrection needs to become the new reality, in all its majesty and mystery, and so Luke is inviting us to turn our attention towards the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is why, officially in the church, Easter isn’t just a one-day celebration that happened last Sunday. No. We are in the most important season of the church, known as Eastertide (which is our liturgical name for this period after Easter Sunday and until Christ ascends and the Church is born on Pentecost). This season is the church calendars balance to the season of Lent. If Lent is about denial, Eastertide is about abundance. During this season, it might make sense to begin each prayer session with a glass of campaign to celebrate each moment of the Easter celebration! Eastertide is designed to allow us all to bask in the resurrection faith, affirming Christ’s transcending death, and to speak of a risen Lord present and among us in the world.
To help us explore the meaning of Eastertide, I want us to look closely at the language in this text. We notice that Luke specifically uses a title for Jesus here. He claims that all the unity that the church is experiencing and the release from need, comes to them because of their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Luke, here, is saying that the community has entered the “Year of the Lord’s favor” which is indeed a “jubilee year.” This is what, I believe, is behind Luke’s discussion on giving up personal property.
A year of Jubilee in Jewish tradition meant something very specific that I feel like could shed some light on Luke’s use of giving up of personal possessions. You see, for the Hebrew people, the year of the Jubilee, according to Hebrew Scriptures, is the year at the end of a seven cycles of sabbatical years (which is to say every 49 years). In this year, it required the compulsory return of all property to its original owners or their heirs. So any land you had sold would be transferred back to you. If your family had a very poor 49 years and had to sell off some of your land, you would receive all your original land back at no cost. All land was returned to how it was originally divided up between the 12 tribes of Israel. If your family had a very prosperous time, then you were to thank God for it, and return the property that you had gained to those who were owed it. The Levitical law demanded this to remind the people of Israel that the land, in fact, did not belong to them, but to their Lord, which was God.
So, if you were a good Jew, in the first century, and were listening to Luke’s account and heard Christ called “Lord” in the same summary section that property ownership was given up, and the needs of the people were met, your mind would likely jump to the idea of a year of Jubilee. You would see that here Jesus is taking on the role of God in the Old Testament. Lord, as a resurrection title, is all about debt forgiveness, not just in a spiritual sense, but also in a practical, property-ownership sense. In turning your own land and property over to the apostles, you were declaring Christ Lord of your life and beginning it with a year of Jubilee.
To proclaim Christ as Lord is to proclaim that debts are forgiven, and there is enough for everyone. No one must be in need any longer, as the community reaches out to provide the means of sustainable life for all. The sign of God’s reign in Acts is the creation of a new community where life for everyone is sustained. For Luke, the resurrection is the demonstration of the power of God over all the powers of sin, death, and destruction in the world. It is also the power by which our lives are transformed.
For Luke, the most dramatic sign of the resurrection was a community where “there was not a needy person among them.” Here, resurrection clearly is not just about praise; it is about reorganizing the economic structures of the community.
In other words, it’s time for the Church to wake up! It is time for us to begin living in a way that constantly strives to reset the economic circumstances of our time. Resurrection is a call for us to be awakened, to come alive to the real world, the world that exists around us, the world where Jesus is already Lord, the world into which your baptism brings you, the world you claim to belong to when you claim the title Christian for yourself.
Our message of Easter, then, is neither that God once did a spectacular miracle nor decided not to do other miracles, nor that there is a blissful life after death. The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it. Jesus is now enthroned as the Lord of heaven and earth. His kingdom is established in our midst, and this kingdom is to be put into practice by his followers. According to Luke, this includes a hard reset of our economic principles.
Declaring Christ Lord is about more than worshiping Jesus in our sanctuary. It is also to let it make a radical difference in the material lives of people down the street. We do this by running playgroups for single working mothers; by providing space for refuges to grow food; by organizing food drives to help people at the bottom of the financial ladder find their way to responsible solvency. We do this by selling our belongings and raising money for better housing, by standing against dangerous roads, and for drug rehab centers, for decent library facilities, and for a thousand other things in which God’s sovereign rule extends to in our hard, concrete realities of our lives.
And to be clear, these things are not extra to the mission of the God. It is the very center of it. Our service and outreach initiatives are the way we proclaim most clearly the Lordship of Jesus Christ in ourselves, in our lives, and in our church. When we come to feast at the table of Jesus Christ each week, we also must be the ones in the forefront of the work to eliminate hunger and famine. When we come to celebrate in our beautiful sanctuary, we must be the ones in the forefront of the work to beautify our community. When we call Jesus Christ our Lord of our hearts, we must also be willing to make him the Lord of our pocketbooks. For this is the gospel from Luke this morning.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Go forth in justice and peace, loving and caring for those around you, serving them and proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord of your life. Go forth with the grace of God, the love of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit now and forevermore. Go in peace. Amen.