Word of the Week

 Resurrection: A Disruption from Greed, Acts 2:42-47

 Preached, Sunday, May 15, 2011

Around Thanksgiving over ten years ago, popular radio commentator, Paul Harvey who was known for his popular broadcast, “The Rest of the Story” told the following tale about a woman seeking to make Thanksgiving dinner for her family.

She had a few questions about how to cook her turkey, as many of us first cookers often do, and so she dialed up the hotline set up by the packager of her turkey, Butterball. The Butterball Turkey Company had set up a telephone hotline to answer consumer questions about preparing holiday turkey. When the operator asked the woman what her question was, she said, she found a turkey that had been in the bottom of her freezer for 23 years.  She wanted to know if it was safe to eat? The Butterball representative told her the turkey would probably be safe to eat if the freezer had been kept below zero for the entire 23 years.

But the Butterball representative warned her that even if the turkey was safe to eat, the flavor would probably have deteriorated to such a degree that she would not recommend eating it. The caller replied, "That's what I thought. We'll give the turkey to our Church."

Though this story is funny, I dare say the truth it points out is not far from our reality, even if we aren’t discussing our Thanksgiving turkeys. Often times, church is the place in our lives where we are willing to give of ourselves and our resources to others, but only if we have pre-determined that our time, money or talents will not be better spent somewhere else.

When we look around at the state of communities of faith in our world, we often become disheartened and wonder where all the vitality has gone but then why should we be surprised? Church is the place we known to give our 23-year-old turkeys. . . .

And to this reality we are given our lectionary reading for this morning taken from Acts 2. It’s the popular passage which has fixated the hearts and minds of countless Christ seekers for centuries because everything seems to be going so well at this point of the early church story. Everyone seemed to be giving their best and was very happy about it. They were devoting themselves to teaching and fellowship and the breaking of bread together and prayers. No words are spoken about church fights, disagreements or annoyances between parties about what kind of teaching they heard, what kind of potlucks they had, what type of bread they had for communion or who was called on to say the prayers—it was all good (just as our music director, Ken would say).

Yet, what do you do with such a passage? Where does it lead you if seek to be faithful to it?

Consider this: there is the imitation model, reading Acts 2 as the ideal that we are to live up to. Saying, that only the “true” churches are those who do just as it reads, literally.

Try googling this passage and what you will find is that 67 million hits for “Acts 2 Church” —that’s over a million entries for every verse. There are Baptist, United Methodist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Pietiest, Mennonite and no end of independent and evangelical congregations that go by the name Acts 2 Church. There are the “Acts 2 Network,” “How to Be an Acts 2 Church,” “Building an Acts 2 Church,” the “Acts 2 Process”—plus, like a million other attempts at incarnating, reviving or re-establishing the original.[i]

Yet, often what happens in this utopia experiments is that something evidentially goes wrong. A pastoral rock star makes a mistake, a fight breaks out about what color carpet to place in the sanctuary, or it is learned that the treasurer uses mission account for his own good and goes on a permanent vacation to the Bahamas. Sounds crazy, but you know as well as I do it is true!

But, if you don’t like this, there is the ignoring model. It says what happened in Acts 2 was just some prose written by author Luke when he was on his “idealistic” high that we really don’t need to pay attention to.

We throw out its value altogether calling it a “call to communism.”

What? I have to give up all my possessions? What? I have to share? What? I have to eat regularly with people who might love Jesus but I don’t like? What? Now that is just too much for my American loving democracy ears to take!

I know that this can be the reaction of the church first hand because of one of the earliest experiences I had my previous post as an associate pastor.

Soon before my first Sunday to preach, I was sat down and told the story of the last time a woman had entered the pulpit there. When this woman got up to preach, using our passage for this morning, she used the opportunity to go off on the congregation. I guess it was the case of a lot of spiritual passion with no one to proclaim to, but from what I heard, she came down hard saying they were not faithful Christians if they didn’t share everything in common with one another.  

She asked everyone at the end of the sermon to go home and consider what it might mean to live in poverty and not be so individualistic about their goods.  Since the senior pastor had not heard me preach before, I got that look like, “Please don’t preach like that or I won’t be sharing my pulpit with you much in the future because you and I won’t have jobs anymore!”

And, if we are in the company of those who want to call Acts 2 socialism, there are countless Biblical scholars who might agree with us.

One such scholar, Rita Halteman Finger has written extensively on the passage saying that Acts 2 is “simply unworkable in the modern context.”[ii]

Yet, do these two scenarios have to be THE STORY? The story that either we seek to achieve the impossible OR we throw the baby out with the bath water, as the old saying goes?

This morning, I propose that there might be an altogether alternative way of narrating and living into this text. Because the truth is that if we read this passage in context of the rest of the Acts story, we know that what is proposed is not communism, nor is it utopia.

For, as Paul goes on to establish church communities in other parts of the world, we never see him breaking out this passage as a formula for what the group ought to look like. Nor, do we find such idealism achieved without a few major errors along the way. It wasn’t as if everything was always rosey in early church land.

There were those who cheated the community what they should have shared—remember Ananias and Sapphira. 

There were those who grumbled because they didn’t get their “fair representation”--- remember the dispute between the Greeks and the Jewish Christians about who was getting the proper amount of food. 

There were consequences to the boldness of the teaching in the lives of the disciples— remember Peter and John being detained early on for their public proclamation.  No, nothing was perfect.

But, what Acts 2 provides us is the intentionally of the design of communities of folks seeking Christ together.  Why? Because the Spirit knew that our natural human tendency was to be in relationships with others NOT based on some purpose greater than ourselves or thinking of others before ourselves. Rather, usually, we take our cues from the fear of not having enough which is called greed.  

Yet, the resurrection disrupted everything. Greed could no longer be accepted. Sharing would have to reign as the intention over all.

If we take a close look at the Greek words used in this passage we begin to see it clearer.  Look with me at verse 42: “And they were committing themselves (Greek: proskartereo) to the teaching of the apostles and to the fellowship (koinonia)”

Koinonia is a word that many of you might have heard before—the new fellowship group at Washington Plaza was debating even the idea of this word being the name of their gatherings—it means fellowship but probably in a deeper context than we as good church folks identify with the typical potluck suppers. Rather, koinonia, consists of being community based on both our reality in the present and our hopes for the future. 

And, this notion is further understood when it is paired with the other Greek verb, proskartereo which speaks of the “mutual devotion” in which the disciples sought to gather both in the temple and in their homes. Thus, they were not just getting together because it was the right thing to do, or what was expected of them, or what someone had asked them to do. Rather, they gathered because of their affection for one another and desire to share in life’s joys and sorrows together.

Because you see, the daily gatherings they had with one another would just turn into mere activities occurring side by side in the same place and not koinonia IF mutual devotion to one another was not in place. Without the mutual devotion, there would be no koinonia instead just some get together to pass the time.

The disruption from greed became the loving bonds of true community—where they knew those in whom they were worshipping alongside were in for both for the good and the bad. They were broken, they were real, they could say when they had a need and there would be those in loving, supportive people who could walk alongside them.

All of this in itself is good. Very good, but I tell you there is more!

For, the purpose of all of this was never meant for the koinonia to stay within those who were already experiencing it. For as we read verse 46 and 47 we learn that the community stayed together in glad and generous hearts, the Spirit drew into the community more and more who wanted to participate in their good work.

Because you see the greater plan at work comes to light in another one of the Greek verbs in this passage, homothumadon which means “one accord” or is translated in our passage as having “glad and generous hearts.”  Hear this: the work of the gospel that happened in the community was not just for itself. The gospel message showing up in tangible practices and actions was for the larger good of the world.[iii]

Sure, the early believers could create for themselves a nice little Jesus club and make restrictions about who they could invite to their gatherings and not based on what they hoped the community would look like. Sure, they could bring food every Sunday and only eat it themselves. Sure, they could contribute to mission funds only so that their members could be taken care of. But, if they did, they’d be missing altogether the intention of the church and they would be greedy.

There was a reason, a very important reason, after all, for all of the community building, study and fellowship that just didn’t end in a warm fuzzy feeling everyone saying to one another: “Aren’t we such a good church?” The greater purpose came in seeking after the ways of God’s good intentions for this world together.  The togetherness really did matter. It really did matter a lot. The intention of the Christian life exists for sharing, but sharing not just from individual to individual, but from community to community.

I heard the story this week from one of my colleagues’ churches in Charlotte, NC about content of their Easter service a few weeks ago. Instead of being content with the usual fanfare of the day, with a great individualistic centered focus found in many congregations, this year, the Park Road Baptist Church decided to do something differently. Hearing about the sad situation of young girls living in tent cities in Haiti, unable to go back to their homes post the earthquake, they came up with a congregational wide project.

The information they received from a NGO on the ground was that teenaged girls were often raped or brutally beaten if they were wearing clothes that weren’t dresses. Dresses often served as a protective shield to potential predators, signifying to those who would seek to do the girl harm that they were being cared for and watched after by someone who loved them.

One woman in Charlotte with a sewing machine led the church to action. Going into her linen closet and pulling out old pillow cases unused in years, she utilized a simple pattern and began making the pillowcases into dresses, adding some material for the strap and some decorative extra material at the bottom for the hem.

By Easter, under the leadership of this grandmother, the congregation had over 150 dresses to send to Haiti, and prayed over and blessed them during the Easter worship service.  They hung them all over the choir loft for the entire length of the service. And it was an intentional decision: for the message to the congregation gathered was that resurrection was not an action that happened over 2000 years ago and has nothing to say to us now. Rather, resurrection became for this congregation a disruption to their normal patterns of relating both to their local and global communities. Greed of keeping all their time, all their possessions, all their talents for themselves or their families just couldn’t  be if they were going to continue to make the resurrection message come alive.

And the same intention is same for us, oh people of Northern VA.  What is our calling today? How are we going to share with each other so to continue to make koinonia beyond a permanent fixture of our gatherings? How are we going to share with our brothers and sisters around our community and across the oceans to do our part to eliminate hunger, homelessness, child abuse, discrimination and inequality? Yes, it’s overwhelming to think about such big things. Yes, it seems easier to stand still in our tracts and do nothing. Yes, there aren’t a lot of messages in our cultural society telling us that greed is really that bad for us.

But, if we want to be people of the resurrection, we have to commit anew each week to hold on tight to our community, love each other well and not let us love of God that we experience with one another every Sunday, stay right in this room. Resurrection must be a disruption for all—a disruption from greed to life evermore. 

This is the gospel of Christ.






[i] Russell Rathbun: http://thehardestquestion.org/yeara/easter4act/

[ii] Taken from Matt Skinner’s commentary on Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 13, 2008 www.workingpreacher.org

[iii] Thanks to Mitiz J. Smith for help with the Greek here, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=5/15/2011