Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter (April 19, 2009)
“A Common Life” (Acts 4:32-35)
My daughter inadvertently said something profound the other day. She said, “Daddy, it's going to be Easter for a long time.” At first I almost said, “Yes, that's right. The Easter season lasts for seven weeks.” But then, I realized that, when you really think about it, it's not going to be Easter for a long time. It's going to be Easter forever. Jesus rose and lives eternally. And so will all who have been baptized into his name and who trust in his saving work at the cross. When the church year starts all over again next Advent, it will really be Easter. When we sing Silent Night by candlelight on Christmas Eve, it will really be Easter. When the Magi arrive at the manger on Epiphany, it will really be Easter. And even when the candles are extinguished on Good Friday, and we hear the boom of the strepitus during our tenebrae service, it will really be Easter. It's going to be Easter for a long time. It's going to be Easter forever.
In today's collect, we prayed, “Almighty God, grant that we who have celebrated the Lord's resurrection may by Your grace confess in our life and conversation that Jesus is Lord and God.” Easter changes us. It brings us new life. It not only has eternal ramifications. It affects how we live here and now, as well. The Good News that Jesus, our Lord and God, is alive shapes our life and conversation.
It certainly shaped the way the church lived in the years immediately following the resurrection of Christ. St. Luke recorded the life of the early church for us in the Book of Acts. Our first readings this Easter season will be from the Book of Acts, and they will serve as our sermon texts for this week and the following five Sundays. Together, we will explore the question, “How does the Church live in light of the resurrection of Jesus?”
In today's text, we heard how the believers were closely bound together in heart and soul, that they shared everything in common, and that they testified to the resurrection of Jesus.
Now, the fact that they had everything in common with one another did not mean that they were communists. Nor did they separate themselves from society and join monasteries, giving up all earthly belongings, refusing to marry and have children (that movement in the church started years later). People still had personal property and possessions, but they offered them in service to their fellow believers. They did not view their personal possessions and property as something to cling to, as if their personal well-being depended on them. They used them in service to their neighbor. And we know that Peter, for example, was married. Scripture speaks of his mother-in-law (Matt. 8:14). So we can assume that other apostles were married, too, just like other Christians in those days, such as Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:2).
How do we measure up when we compare ourselves to the way the early church lived? I don't think we could say of ourselves that “no one said that any of the the things that belonged to him was his own.” In this capitalistic society in which we live, we carefully guard that which we have earned with our hard work. We balk at supporting welfare programs, especially when we learn how some people have taken advantage of the system. Now, of course, it's not necessarily sinful to be a capitalist. There's nothing wrong with having a goal to make a profit from your business or from buying and selling any number of products or services. The Bible doesn't really teach us whether one economic system is more spiritual than another. What is wrong is when you view your property and possessions as ends in themselves. It is sinful to selfishly hoard things to yourself, especially when you know that there are needy people among your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Only a few verses after this passage of Scripture we hear the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of property, kept back some of the proceeds, but made it look like they were giving their whole earnings. They brought the money to the apostles, and Peter called them on the carpet, saying, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit … Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God?” At that, Ananias fell over dead. Later, when his wife was confronted with her part in this, also died.
The Bible doesn't tell us about the eternal fate of Ananias and Sapphira. However, there is an indication that their fate was not a happy one. Upon their deaths, Luke records that “great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard these things.” (Acts 5:11) I don't know if there would have been “great fear” had it been known that these two immediately went to heaven. Again, we just don't know. But the deaths of these two hypocrites is a stern warning to all who make a false show of giving to the Lord and who withhold that which they have promised to give. They were clearly not of “one heart and soul” with the rest of the church. They did not have “everything in common.” And if you and I claim to love our neighbors as ourselves yet hold back when they need our help, then we are in danger of being judged as unbelieving hypocrites ourselves.
In the face of the death which you and I deserve because of our sin, Jesus came to unselfishly share his never-ending life. The same night he rose from the dead, he appeared to his disciples and shared his peace with them (John 20:19-20). “Peace be with you,” he said, and showed them his hands and his feet, revealing the wounds out of which his blood flowed … his blood which was the payment for our sins … his blood which earned peace between us and God. Jesus then breathed on the disciples, giving them the Holy Spirit, and instituting the office of the ministry whereby forgiveness is spoken and given in Christ's name and by his authority. And when forgiveness is given, there also life is given, as Luther says in the Small Catechism, “For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”
Life … life forever … eternal life … that's what you and I now have in common with Jesus because of his wounds and his blood that was shed. We have a common life with God through Jesus. And when I say “common” I don't mean “ordinary.” On the contrary, this life with God is “extraordinary.” We have fellowship with him, and this is not just being buddies. It's being intimately united with him and with the life that he gives. By believing you have life in his name (John 20:31).
Jesus is the “word of life,” as St. John calls him in today's Epistle reading. He is “THE eternal life.” “The life was manifest, and we have seen and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – that which we have seen and heard and proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:2-3) And a few verses later, St. John wrote, “If we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7) Fellowship … sharing things in common. Sharing the life and peace that Christ gives. Sharing that life and peace with one another by virtue of our common Baptism into Christ and the faith which we confess. Being of one heart and soul.
That's how the early church lived. They were still sinners, that's for sure. They needed forgiveness constantly, just like you and me. But in a culture where the economy was fragile, where there was political discontent, where fisherman and farmers had moved to the city to find employment, the new Christians faced the very real possibility of being discriminated against because of their new-found faith. (EBC, Acts, p 310) So the believers rallied around each other in economic hard times. Their testimony to the resurrection found concrete expression in the acts of mercy given to their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
By God's grace, that's how we can live today, too. Our economy is fragile right now. Our country is pretty much divided right down the middle politically speaking. Numerous people have lost their jobs. We don't really face discrimination for being Christians, but the media often portrays Christians as uneducated, superstitious, country-bumpkins. In times likes these, we can rally around each other and support one another with concrete acts of mercy. Jesus said, “By this will all people know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) We can manifest the power of the love of Jesus and the new life and great grace that God gives to us in his Son. And as we do, we give testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, with whom we have eternal life in common.
It is going to be Easter for a long time. It's going to be Easter forever.