Fourth Sunday in Lent
It has been said that I am cheap. I prefer to be referred to as a person who exercises the wisdom of frugality. I bristle a little bit at cheap, because it was a word that my mother used of other women who wore items of clothing of which she did not approve, as in “That dress makes her look cheap.” I think I was probably a junior in college before I realized what my mother was actually saying. But if I am to be cheap, so be it. I consider myself to be royalty when it comes to off-brand buying. I carefully compare bottle size and shape, and I try to figure out, who is it that actually makes this product? And why should I pay extra for exactly the same thing? Somebody has to make all of this stuff, right? I have a very good friend who, when speaking of himself often says, “It’s good enough for who it’s for.” And he’s right. If my taste buds aren’t sophisticated enough to tell the difference between A-1 steak sauce, and Great Value’s brown sauce for dead cow parts, then because I am cheap, I should select the stuff from Great Value. That’s my choice for my self. Only, only and only for myself. And if we ever have a church supper or a fellowship luncheon or a men’s breakfast again, I’ll be sure to bring the A-1, because it is out of the realm of my authority to make that same decision for others, even though too often, in our work of mission and ministry, we do make that decision for others. We do say, “Well that’s certainly good enough for who it’s for.” And as soon as we do that we have driven a very powerful wedge of distinction between ourselves and those for whom we believe that it is good enough. We have made a value judgment that sets ourselves above the others.
Now where am I going with all of this? Why am I talking about provocative outerwear and steak sauce? I mention these things, because for a very short time, the earliest followers of Jesus dabbled in communism. Communism was the structure in which they developed their sense of community. Communism was the vehicle by which they avoided the drawing of distinctions of value between themselves. Communism reminded them that they had all been equal recipients of God’s lavish grace. Communism encouraged them to welcome one another as co-participants in the work of the kingdom of God. Communism encouraged them to share with one another at the deepest level of caring that was humanly possible. Communism kept them from falling into the mentality of “It’s good enough for who it’s for.”
And, perhaps, much to our distaste, they didn’t fall into this practice of communism by accident. It was, instead, rather intentional. It had to have been a significant part of the Apostle’s teaching. The whole community was gathered together in this manner, because the whole community “devoted themselves to the Apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
The earliest followers of Jesus were part of a community just begun, and a community just begun is a community filled with hope and excitement. They were gathered around a single and common cause. They were friends and followers of Jesus Christ.
Initially there were only about a hundred and twenty of them. Many of these people had followed Jesus for much of his ministry. Some of them had traveled to Jerusalem with Jesus, marching with him rather triumphantly as he entered the city on what we now call Palm Sunday. A few of them had witnessed Jesus’ arrest, and all of them were familiar with Jesus’ crucifixion and death, even if they had only experienced those events safely, and from a distance. But every one of them had seen Jesus alive after his resurrection, and all knew of his ascension into heaven.
And it was this group, this gathering of the followers of Jesus, drawn together because of their love for Jesus, that constituted the beginnings of the early church.
By the time that we get to verse 42, though, that group of 120 people has grown to about three thousand. Luke tells us that it happened in one day. I find it mind boggling that a relatively small group of 120 persons could grow to 30 times that number in just one day. That day, though, was the Day of Pentecost, and on that day the Holy Spirit came rumbling through that community of believers with a creative power that has not been seen since. At least not that I know of. It was a very auspicious beginning.
But what to do with 3,000 people in one city who have responded to the Gospel? 120 is a manageable number. 120 people can take care of themselves. 120 people can easily watch out for each other so that no one goes without. But what do you do with 3,000 people? How do you take care of them?
Fortunately, the Holy Spirit had a plan. And a stunning part of that plan was the practice of communism. Luke very clearly says in verses 44 and 45 that “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Did it work? It would have been grand if it had. But sadly, even among the followers of Jesus, there is sin. And, specifically, there is greed. And because of the sin of greed, this grand directive of the Holy Spirit, this grand attempt at the pursuit of the purest form of communism failed. As Luke tells us this story about how the church started out, he tells us this part of the story rather wistfully, because he knows that later on he will have to tell us that this grand work of the Holy Spirit failed; that it didn’t work out because of human sin and greed, even among the followers of Jesus.
But what did not fail is what Luke talks about in the rest of this passage.
There is a wonderful textual variant in verse 46. Our pew Bibles read, “Day by day, as they spent much time in the Temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts…” The variant reads that they broke bread from house to house. Scholars are completely divided over this variant, but I like it much better than the reading that the editors of our pew Bibles have settled on. This tells me that the earliest followers of Jesus took the work of doing fellowship very seriously. They went from house to house bringing meals to one another, or sharing meals with one another. it means that as part of their interactions with one another, that they were inside of each others’ homes. And being inside each others’ homes meant that all were cared for in glad and in generous ways. By visiting with one another on a regular basis, needs became evident. And when needs became evident, those needs were met. No one became the victim of “It’s good enough for who it’s for.”
Fellowship among the followers of Jesus is always more, much more than simple friendliness at gatherings. Fellowship demands a profound level of connectedness with one another that sees beyond the surface and into the heart. This level of fellowship is what impelled the leaders of the followers of Jesus to encourage the practice of communism among the believers. It is not likely that we will return to communism any time soon. Even among believers, sin and especially the sin of greed will continue to plague us. In fact, on all of our radios and television sets, we can hear and see peddlers of the faith, who unabashedly promote the sin of greed as if it were a God-ordained virtue. Many have been deceived by this shameless hucksterism.
And so if communism is not going to return to the church, and if “It’s good enough for who it’s for” must be banished from our lips, what shall we do to maintain sacred fellowship with one another? Luke has an answer. He says, “They devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Here is a fine summary of how a church should do it’s mission: First, commit to following the Scriptures.
Second, become involved in one another’s lives at a loving and caring level so that needs can be met joyfully, and not reluctantly. When we break bread together, Jesus is here among us. And finally, we must hold one another up in prayer. These are perilous times in which we live. Greed has power. We must make it impotent.