Sunday, April 12, 2015

One Heart and Soul

Psalm 133: Acts 4: 32-37
April 12, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

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 Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

Acts 4: 32-37
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. There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

Let’s admit it.
This scripture tweaks the cynic in many of us.
We read this glowing description and nod our heads as if we believe it, but, really …. REALLY?
Shouldn’t we just unpack this a bit?

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul…”
Oh, I don’t think so. There was somebody in the corner shaking his head, somebody in the kitchen muttering about their own ideas being better. There was somebody that knew she knew what was best, biding her time to say “I could’ve predicted this.” There was somebody who withdrew in silence, waiting for it to all fall apart. They couldn’t possibly all have been of one heart and soul, could they?

Then there’s that next phrase: “and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” In a word, psssshhhhh!
In fact, in the very next verses, the very next chapter, a couple of people demonstrate exactly what I’m talking about. They sell a piece of property, and they give SOME of the money to the church, holding some back and lying about it. When they are confronted, they drop dead.

That would make for an interesting stewardship campaign, wouldn’t it?
“Please complete your pledge card. Be aware that holding back may result in being suddenly struck down dead.”

Seriously, though – this story can’t possibly be the whole truth, but I do think that it is the truth. There really are times in the life of the church when all the believers are of one heart and soul. Often, that happens during periods of extreme outside pressure. Paradoxically, as persecution increases, the body of Christ grows stronger. It is often a matter of choosing to hang together lest they all be hung separately. For example, during the time of the persecutions under Nero, the Christian community in Rome was certainly united.

Somehow, the possibility of being crucified, run through with a sword, then fed to wild animals as entertainment in the coliseum puts most minor issues or disagreements into perspective. It probably was a kind of “one for all and all for one” community, at least for a period of time.

When your very life is threatened, it is probably a lot easier to hold all property in common, making sure that everyone has everything they need. They weren’t wealthy, that first century congregation, though some of them must have been – like Barnabas. He was from Cyprus, a worker in the early church. This is the first time he is mentioned in scripture, but not the last. Barnabas traveled with Paul doing missionary work and establishing churches. He understood that Christian community required sharing, participation and contribution in the common life.

That word, “common” – referring to things held in common, and the root word of community, commune – that word in New Testament Greek is koine. In fact, New Testament Greek is also called “koine Greek,” because it was the language of the common folk. Koine is the root word for “koinonia” which gets translated often as fellowship.

But it is more than that – it is fellowship, to be sure.
It is also sharing, participation, and contribution.
In other words, you can’t have fellowship without sharing.
The community relies on our participation.
The common life depends upon our contributions.

That kind of common life, the one heart and one soul, is very uncommon. Perhaps it is because we are so resistant to it. We’ve spent our whole lives learning that Christianity and communism are diametrically opposed. We have learned that communism is by its very nature godless. But what we have depicted here is a bunch of first century Christians. living communally, sharing everything in common.

And we aren’t very comfortable with that depiction.
We like the far off stories of the early church, when things were different.
But we don’t like to think about living that way now!
Honestly! I love y’all, but I don’t want to move in with you!

So we resist this type of story. Things were different then, we tell ourselves. They didn’t have the kind of pressures we did. They didn’t have student loans and house payments. They weren’t on fixed incomes. We tell ourselves that this can’t possibly apply to us. Whether we like it or not, though, this story does speak to us – maybe in ways that make us uncomfortable. We may not all live together communally – I’d just as soon not, if that’s okay with y’all! – but we can be “one heart and soul.” We can be “one body.” We can offer care for one another in times of loss or need.

Maybe it isn’t economic need, so much as spiritual.
Maybe rather than sell some land, we need to give up some territory that belongs to us - making space for others who may differ from us. Maybe that territory is different for each one of us. Maybe we need to give up positions or locations which we hold on to so tightly, and which hold on to us and keep us from being one heart and soul. Places like privilege, and judgment. “I have the right to my opinions,” we tell ourselves, as if we earned our race or place or the privilege into which we were born.

Maybe what we need to give up is our certainty about our closely held opinions on religion, or politics. Maybe what we need to give up is the rush to say what we think, and instead offer our listening to others; Maybe what we need to give up is our comfort, tolerating some discomfort as we make space for others.

You know, the reason some people “don’t like church” is that the common life asks just this of us – to be in close community with each other, to share, to participate, and contribute. The reason some people don’t like church is this very thing that church gives us, and asks of us – the grace and challenge of living in close quarters, so to speak, and finding ways to be one heart and soul, one body.

Obviously, churches don’t always get this right.
Obviously, we have a lot of work to do – you can pick up the newspaper almost any day and see that Christians are not exactly “one heart and soul.” Just this past week, a friend and seminary classmate of mine, an African American woman who is a minister in the AME church, started a discussion on Facebook about the most recent shooting of an unarmed black man by a police officer. She talked about her pain about this continued divide in our country, about her hope, about her fear. It was all very thoughtful and respectful until someone called my friend a racist. Mind you, my African American minister friend. It was painful – painful for her, painful for everyone in the conversation, painful to the body of Christ. As the Apostle Paul said in First Corinthians 12:26 “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

So we suffer. And we keep not getting it right.
But the fact that we aren’t getting it right is exactly the reason we need to keep doing it, keep trying. Not getting it right is not the reason to give up. Not getting it right is the reason to keep on, to stay together!

Because we know, from this story and others like it in the Bible, that it can happen.
It can, and does, happen, because of Easter.

We can be one heart and soul together because we are brought together in baptism and in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That grace that claims us and nourishes us at Christ’s table enables us to develop the moral imagination to live this common life – this communion life, sharing, participating, contributing, and making space for others to do the same.

To be one heart and soul, to live as community, asks us to be Easter people:
sharing love in thought, word, and deed,
participating in grace with acts of mercy,
contributing ALL of our gifts – everything we have! –
for the good of the body,
this resurrected body of Christ, that lives and moves and has its being
with one heart of love
and one soul of grace,
raised to new life in our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.

One heart and soul.


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