Written by Kathryn Matthews
Sunday, May 7
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Glad and Generous Hearts
Shepherd of all, by laying down your life for your flock you reveal your love for all. Lead us from the place of death to the place of abundant life, that guided by your care for us, we may rightly offer our lives in love for you and our neighbors. Amen.
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 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. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
All readings for the week
1 Peter 2:19-25
1. Do you think visitors to your church perceive what you are doing as a witness? If so, what are you witnessing to?
2. Are your visitors drawn into the life of your church, or do they remain merely observers?
3. How does this reading sound to our 21st century, capitalist, private-property ears?
4. Would a close reading of the text and a challenge to live in the same way as our ancestors in faith be simply "too much" for us?
5. How might we imagine our lives re-shaped and re-directed, even significantly, so that we might experience "glad and generous hearts"?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
Toward the end of the first century of this common era (C.E.), what we have traditionally called the first century "A.D.," the author of the Gospel of Luke wrote the book of the Acts of the Apostles, as the second half of his proclamation of the remarkable "things that had happened": the good news of God's saving acts in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the continuation of Jesus' ministry through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the life of the early church. We see this connection, or continuity, in the very first verse of the first chapter of Acts, which says: "In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven..." and then Luke recounts the events that followed: the apostles getting themselves together and setting out on their mission to preach the good news that they had encountered in the person of Jesus Christ.
The very first Christians studied the Scripture they had, what we today call the "Old Testament," or Hebrew Scriptures. But here, in the first century, it took some time for the Gospels to be shaped and written down, and gathered together with the epistles that Paul and others had been writing as they traveled around, spreading the Good News and planting new church communities in cities all around the Mediterranean world. When Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles, he was reassuring his audience that the teaching that had been handed down to them from the apostles--what they had heard--was reliable. Luke's purpose was to confirm the faith of Christian believers a generation or two after the apostles, helping them to see the link between the power of the Holy Spirit and the tremendous growth and vitality of the early church.
The "adventures" of the apostles
The Book of Acts tells us about Peter's early preaching, Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit (just as Jesus had promised), the conversion of thousands of people, healings and wonders, more preaching, meetings with the religious authorities, persecutions, the first deacons, more preaching, the stoning of Stephen, the conversion of Paul and his subsequent preaching, the growth of the church throughout the Mediterranean, more meetings and more preaching, escapes from prison, Paul's travels and adventures at sea, the council at Jerusalem, controversies, riots, trials, journeys, and, of course, more preaching. (This very brief description of the Book of Acts does not do it justice, so it would be helpful to sit down one quiet afternoon and read it from beginning to end.)
In between those stories and sermons are linking passages very much like this one, short summaries that come up from time to time along the way, and sound very much the same: in the midst of all these deedsñ-better yet, in the midst of the working of the Holy Spirit through the apostles, the church flourished, counting more and more people as members, people who prayed together, shared their possessions, broke bread together, and devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles.
Real, or ideal, or both?
Scholars don't agree about whether the passage's description of the early Christian community is idealized or not. Does it matter? Long ago, in a far-off land, our ancestors in faith did the same things we do today, as communities of faith, bearing witness by doing the things that we're called to do and to be about. These marks identify us as Christian communities, and we can draw parallels between then and now: pull out our monthly newsletters and find, here and there, the activities and programs by which we strive to devote ourselves to study, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. This Bible study or adult education class or confirmation class or church school curriculum, that coffee hour or women's gathering or youth group outing or faith/film series, this weekly communion service or that opening prayer, that Sunday morning service of worship, that TaizÈ service, that prayer at the side of one who is dying...these are the embodiments and expressions of our own, idealized, shared life in faith.
What may be missing at times today, however, is not the teaching and learning, the fellowship, communion, or prayer, but the awe. The "wonders and signs" may be passing us by; every church, in its own way, experiences wonders both large and small that merit our time and attention. But so often, the many activities of our life as a congregation get added to our busy calendars as simply more stress, rather than as something qualitatively different from "ordinary daily activities"--as ministries. Do they feed us, or drain us? These early Christians, clearly, were fed by the things they did and the way they lived. How often do we open ourselves to such blessings?
A spirit and a witness that's contagious
It can become a regular spiritual practice to stop, take stock, and begin afresh in our shared life so that those "things" we are about actually nourish rather than consume us. (Years ago, our church "took a nap" in January, which is easy to do in cold and snowy Cleveland; the only things on our schedule were gatherings for prayer, learning and worship, but no regular meetings were held.) I've always found it helpful--and challenging--to imagine how a visitor experiences a church, that is, its people and its ministries/activities rather than its building or its style of worship, the two things we probably focus most of our attention on.
Do you think visitors to your church perceive what you are doing as a witness? If so, what are you witnessing to? Are your visitors drawn into the life of your church, or do they remain merely observers? Is being "drawn into the life of the church" seen as serving on a committee or board? (Could this explain why folks are hesitant to become members?) Is the spirit of your church contagious, where others find themselves wanting to learn more, to gather with the folks in your church, to break and share the bread, to pray in community, not just alone? (Not that there's anything wrong with praying in solitude, but there is value in both.)
At the heart of this passage: sharing
And then there are the signs of this shared life outside the church building: first, at the end of worship or a trustees meeting or a mission trip or an adult education class or a church supper, our hope is that lives are affected, changed in ways that may be imperceptibly small and yet quite powerful. Maybe, for some, transformation is sudden and dramatic and even long-lasting, but for others, it's incremental, born of everyday faithfulness and grace. And yet those gatherings, studies, and worship experiences can resound through their lives, after they return to the wider community, if they are filled with the Spirit and sent to share God's love and forgiveness with a world in need of both.
Our reading is short and yet, if we pay close attention, if we sit with it for a while, and if we're brave enough to share it with others, we may find that many of us "good Christians" would feel uncomfortable with what it's saying. (How ironic that this discomfiting text is read on Good Shepherd Sunday, when we hear the beloved and most comforting Psalm 23.) Do you think we even begin to share our possessions with those around us so that everyone has enough? And is such sharing seen as justice-based, rooted in the gospel, not simply as something that warms our hearts?
How does this sound to modern ears?
It isn't just individual lives that need to be transformed, we hear in this text, but the life of the community, the way we share the goods that God has given us all (because we are all God's children!). How does this reading sound to our 21st-century, capitalist, private-property ears, especially in a nation that (however correctly or incorrectly) claims to be Christian? Perhaps the better question is how well the Christian majority has contributed to shaping a nation that shares with "glad and generous hearts."
God is still speaking to us today, through this reading and through the images that come to us on the nightly news and on social media, about the ownership and accumulation of property to excess, the movement of wealth upward in disproportionate and disgraceful ways that have profoundly threatened the middle class and endangered the poor. I always hear the voice of one church leader who said that we should ask, before each decision (public, private, church, etc.), "How will this affect the poor?"
How will this affect the poor, and the voiceless, and the most vulnerable?
What would it look like, as we consider national budgets, if our leaders asked that question, and then re-shaped policies and "new tax plans" to protect those most in need, those most vulnerable to the actions of the wealthy and the powerful? This includes not only "the poor," but our children, for example, and people with disabilities, veterans, and people who are older. It also includes God's beautiful creation and the animals and plants that inhabit it and have no voice in its mis-use and destruction.
Is there some way out?
What is your sense of how your own church would respond to a close reading of this text? We're probably tempted to side with those scholars who call this an idealized description of the life of those earliest Christians, a way of living that even they weren't really able to achieve. That certainly makes it easier to let ourselves off the hook. And even if they were somehow able to live that way, we of course live in a very different world, with different economic systems, larger populations, different problems and challenges, and so on, and so on. Would a close reading of the text and a challenge to live in the same way as our ancestors in faith be simply "too much" for us?
Of course, today we also have different methods of sharing that those early believers didn't enjoy. I'm thinking of the multitude of charities around us, with more popping up on the Internet each day. Rather than sharing only within one faith community and perhaps with those "at our door," we can respond with generous (and sometimes broken) hearts to the needs of refugees far away, to those who are hungry around the world, and even farther away, to generations we will never see but who will be affected by our actions and decisions concerning the care of the earth.
Remaining true to the ideal
In a very different time and place, where private property is actually called "sacred," the challenge is to imagine how we can remain true to the heart of this ideal. Indeed, it will require the power of the Spirit to transform the way we live together, to make us more and more generous and less and less focused on our own security. Courage will be required of us, and creativity and a lively religious imagination just as much as a passionate commitment to justice.
Of course, the sharing of our possessions, including the generous support of God's mission through the church, isn't limited to the church: we can hold up the ideal of this passage from Scripture each time we vote or consider school levies, poverty programs, and issues of economic justice. Our lives reach and impact others, even beyond our sight, in ways never imagined when this account was written down.
Are our hearts glad and generous today?
Just as awe seems to be in short supply (no matter how much we over-use the word "awesome" in conversation), so are "glad and generous hearts" rare in our time. The rise in the number of people diagnosed with depression, for example, and the number of medications brought onto the market to treat it, are puzzling in a time when the standard of living, and the possibilities for "happiness" (depending on how you define it) are so much higher than ancient times.
What has our society done or become that presses down our hearts and minds even in the midst of incredible affluence, for depression does not care about income or class? How might we imagine our lives re-shaped and re-directed, even significantly, so that we might experience "glad and generous hearts"? Do you have stories of people who came to your church, whose lives were transformed? Have we passed by, and failed to notice?
The early Christians faced many of the same problems that we face
It's important for us, twenty centuries later, to understand that, right in the Book of Acts, in between the summaries that describe with a joyful exuberance the rapid growth of the early church, are those stories of very real, very human differences and conflicts. For example, the early church had to deal with that very important question of whether to let the Gentiles in on this good news. That was a really big problem that required a special council, in Jerusalem, lots of work on Paul's part, and a very dramatic dream for Peter to get the message that God's plan included all of God's children.
And then there were some other problems: right after Luke says that everyone shared what they had, two people are found to have held back some of the profits on the sale of their property. In a dramatic story, each of them drops dead when confronted with what they had done. This must have caused at least a little talk in the church afterward.
Challenges in every age
And then there was grumbling among the Greek converts who complained that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. So they had a big meeting, and they decided to designate seven people to be deacons who would distribute the food fairly, so the apostles could continue to preach, teach and pray. Of course, right away one of the deacons, Stephen, starts to preach, teach and pray--the apostles' job! Nobody can convince me that THAT didn't hit somebody the wrong way. Today's short passage doesn't include those controversies and conflicts, but holds up for us a wonderful model, a memory and ideal not just for the Christians at the end of the first century, but for us, too, here at the beginning of the twenty-first.
Whatever ways the church has failed in the last two thousand years--in religious wars and persecutions, inquisitions, and hypocrisy--it has still passed on the message of God's saving love, God's forgiveness and grace, God's new life and hope in Jesus Christ. The church has held onto the dream of God's reign on earth, when every tear will be wiped away, when hatred and war and violence will be no more, when love and justice and mercy and joy and peace will fill all the lands. Today, we have received this dream, and we dare to dream it not only with our ancestors in faith, but with our children, and our children's children, and all those who are to come.
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (email@example.com) is the retired dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Pythagoras, 6th century B.C.E.
"Friends share all things."
Jean Vanier, 20th century
"Community is a sign that love is possible in a materialistic world where people so often either ignore or fight each other. It is a sign that we don't need a lot of money to be happy--in fact, the opposite."
Tom Stoppard, playwright, 20th century
"To me, the trick in life is to take that sense of generosity between kin, make it apply to the extended family and to your neighbor, your village and beyond."
John Philip Newell, 21st century
"[W]e need to find ways of sharing our intimate experiences of the Mystery, for we are one. It is through one another that we will know more of the Life that flows within us all. It is through sharing our fragments of insight that we will come to a fuller picture of the One who is at the heart of each life."
Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, 20th century
"A Christian community should do as Jesus did: propose and not impose. Its attraction must lie in the radiance cast by the love of brothers [and sisters]."
Wendell Berry, 20th century
"The freedom of affluence opposes and contradicts the freedom of community life."
Stanley Hauerwas, 20th century
"Saints cannot exist without a community, as they require, like all of us, nurturance by a people who, while often unfaithful, preserve the habits necessary to learn the story of God."
William Shakespeare, 17th century, "King Lear"
"...and we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies,...
And take upon 's the mystery of things,
As if we were God's spies..."Tom Stoppard, playwright, 20th century
"To me, the trick in life is to take that sense of generosity between kin, make it apply to the extended family and to your neighbor, your village and beyond."
Sr Joan Chittister, 21st century
"In community we work out our connectedness to God, to one another, and to ourselves. It is in community where we find out who we really are. It is life with another that shows my impatience and life with another that demonstrates my possessiveness and life with another that gives notice to my nagging devotion to the self. Life with someone else, in other words, doesnít show me nearly as much about his or her shortcomings as it does about my ownÖ. In human relationships I learn that theory is no substitute for love. It is easy to talk about the love of God; it is another thing to practice it."
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