Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Boldness

Rev. Kathy Donley

 4/15/18

 

Scripture Lesson:  Acts 4:27-35

The first eight chapters of the book of Acts provide compelling pictures of the church as it formed in the months and years immediately following Jesus death and resurrection.  Acts 2 references baptism, scripture study, prayer, fellowship and either communion or potluck dinners, depending on how you interpret “the breaking of bread.”  Either way, it seems like 2000 years later, the church in all its forms, has done pretty well at following that pattern.  All denominations continue to practice baptism, Bible study, prayer, communion and potlucks. 

But if you keep reading through chapter 4, you’ll come to an early church practice that is not so wide-spread today.  Verse 32 says, 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.

Acts 4:34 says “there was not a needy person among them”.  This is an echo of Deuteronomy 15:4 which says, “"When YHWH God blesses you in your land, there will be no needy person among you."  Deuteronomy set up the expectations for life under God’s rule in the Promised Land. It seems that Luke quotes Deuteronomy deliberately to say that the early church is living out the vision of community anticipated over a thousand years earlier.[1] 

We will remember that the author of Acts is also the author of the gospel of Luke.  And we will remember  the mission Jesus described for himself in his first sermon in Luke 4, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” 

Those first followers of the way of Jesus shared a profound unity.  They were united in their mission to share the good news of Jesus, to continue the movement begun by Jesus, to live as if resurrection inaugurated the kingdom of God on earth.  In this profound unity, they were known for their compassion and generosity.  There was not a needy person among them.  That is not because their first members were among the rich and powerful.  It is because the community took care of its own.

They disregarded social barriers and religious distinctions.  They subverted normal social hierarchies of wealth, ethnicity, religion, and gender just as Jesus had done.  If your family abandoned you when you became a Christian, then the faith community became your kin, the ones you relied upon for belonging and survival.

It is true that many churches today care for the poor in various ways. There is some version of a soup kitchen or food pantry or a fellowship fund in almost every local congregation.  But it seems to me that those outside the church no longer consider it our distinctive mark. “Those Christians – see how they love each other” is not what you read on social media.  And certainly, it is not typical for members of a congregation to pool all their resources, to hold all things in common, for the benefit of the whole community.  We think we are challenging ourselves with a standard tithe of 10%.

It is not typical, but it has happened and still happens.  People are still overtaken by this radical resurrection practice.    We might think of things like the Catholic Worker movement or Koinonia Farm as examples.   In these communities, people cross economic and racial lines to share their paychecks and possessions in Christian community.  I’m reading Barking to the Choir by Father Greg Boyle.  It contains some of his reflections on the thirty years of ministry he has engaged in Los Angeles.  His organization, Homeboy Industries, provides training and support for people leaving gangs and being released from prison.  Like the early church, this ministry provides two important things – a place to belong with a kinship group and a way to earn a living. 

Acts 4:32 has been characterized as dangerous by some because it sounds like Christian communism and by others because it sounds like a serious call to the resurrection of our economics.  

Retired Methodist Bishop William Willimon says this about it:  “The most eloquent testimony to the reality of the resurrection is . .. a group of people whose life together is so completely changed from the way the world builds a community, that there can be no explanation other than that something decisive has happened in history.” [2]

In other words, you can have all the debates you want about the empty tomb and which gospel writer got the Easter story right, but the bottom line is that the resurrection changed the way people lived. 

These few verses about having all things in common are very familiar.  Somehow I never quite paid attention to their context before.  What I noticed this week is that Acts 4 begins with Peter and John being arrested for preaching the resurrection.  They were held in prison overnight and questioned by the highest ranking religious authorities -- the very same authorities who had condemned Jesus.  These events occur not long after Jesus’ crucifixion.  Luke does not specify a time line, but it appears to be just a few months earlier that the disciples had witnessed his awful, torturous death.  And yet . . . knowing that they might follow Jesus in a death like his does not keep them from speaking.  When they are released, they go to their faith community and pray for boldness.  They do not pray to be delivered, but that they will be bold.

It reminds me of the family in Egypt we learned about last year’s Biennial.  In front of the Christian family’s business, a radical Muslim man has set up a stall.  Anyone wishing to enter the family business must walk through the stall and endure verbal abuse about the family and their Christian faith.  The man has also threatened to throw acid on the face of the family’s 24-year-old daughter.  The  young woman’s request for prayer was quite specific.  She said, “Don’t pray for an end to the persecution.  Pray that our faith will be strong.” 

The early Christians prayed for boldness.  That word has many connotations.  It can mean to be “open” about something, as opposed to secretive or private.  The authorities notice that Peter and John are uneducated men.  Boldness might indicate a plain, straightforward manner of speaking.  Boldness also carries a sense of courage or confidence.  It does not mean brashness or arrogance or pushiness.[3]   Having courage without arrogance is sometimes a hard balance, particularly when we are threatened or afraid.  But that is the picture of the first Christians.  They were bold in their actions, fearlessly holding all things in common with generosity and compassion, bold in their prayers, bold in their testimony. 

When Peter and John were arrested, they were asked, “By what power or authority did you do this?”

Those with earthly power always want to know  -- “who said you could do that?  Who authorized it?”  Because those with earthly power want to hold on to that power. 

But the power of God, the power of Peter and John and those who prayed for boldness does not fit into the usual categories.  It is the power of the Holy Spirit and it will not be contained or ordered or controlled.

Presbyterian minister Tom Long writes, “Whenever political or religious authorities set themselves up as the only legitimate brokers of what people need and defend that authority, inevitably the Holy Spirit breaks down those structures.” [4]

I think Rev. Long is correct, the Holy Spirit breaks down unjust structures.  It sometimes takes a very long time, multiple generations even.  Other times it seems to happen quite quickly.  I’m not sure how it works, but it often seems to happen within a context like the church in Jerusalem, where people are bold to pray and bold to act.

One such story comes out of the communist Russia. Many years ago, there was an American pastor  who spoke fluent Russian and used to lead tour groups to Russia.  One year, when the Soviet Union was still in full command of its large communist empire, this pastor was in Moscow over Easter. And he participated in a large Easter Vigil in front of one of the biggest Russian Orthodox churches. As part of the vigil, large crowds gathered in the square in front of the cathedral. At midnight as Holy Saturday gave way to Easter Sunday, someone knocked on the large doors leading into the church. At that moment the priest on the inside flung open the doors and said (in Russian, of course) in a loud voice to the waiting crowd, “Christ is risen!”

And with one voice the crowd thundered back, “Risen indeed!”

This pastor was is a life-long Christian believer. But he will also tell you that at that moment—when in the heart of communist darkness he heard that throng of people roar forth its unison “Risen indeed”—he just knew the whole thing was true. The gospel, the resurrection, the abiding presence of Jesus among people to this day: it’s all true. He just knew it in a way he had seldom known it before.[5] That truth begets a kind of power that defies regular categories.  A bold courage that does not ask permission and is not measured or controlled.

What I noticed in Acts 4 was that it was in the midst of persecution that the church set about being the church.   Things were getting worse between Israel and Rome.   The atmosphere in Jerusalem was increasingly hostile to Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.  Those first followers did not withdraw to some secure, serene place to set up their commune.  They were there in the thick of it, suffering the same stresses as everyone else in the culture.  They kept on being Jesus’ people, profoundly united in mission, doing prayer and Bible study and communion and fellowship and potlucks and taking care of their own, all while facing the threat of arrest, imprisonment and death.

In recent days, I am having more and more frequent conversations with Christians who are weary and stressed.  The current political climate is untenable.  The immoral actions of our political leaders being defended in the name of Christianity feels increasingly hostile. The Body of Christ in this country is not characterized by profound unity, but by fracturing and brokenness.  And yet, I find hope in this text and in the sense that God has always worked well in that kind of context.  My hope is that we will imitate those first followers, that we will practice resurrection with boldness.

Archbishop Oscar Romero, was a courageous Christian who bore witness to the Resurrected One in the midst of great external hostility.  Two years before he was murdered, he wrote these words:   

A church that doesn’t provoke any crisis, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin 
of the society in which it is being proclaimed, what kind of gospel is that? Very nice, pious considerations that don’t bother anyone, that is the way many would like preaching to be. Those preachers who avoid every thorny matter so as not to be harassed, so as not to have conflicts and difficulties, [they] do not light up the world they live in …

The gospel is courageous;  it’s the good news of him who came to take away the world’s sins.[6]

It is true that as we gather together, break the bread, tell our stories, sing our songs, pray our prayers, bear witness to the good news, care for those in need, work for peace, and struggle for justice, then we discover again that Jesus is alive among us and that "great grace is upon us all." Sisters and brothers, let us be bold.  Amen.

 



[1] Peter T. Vogt, ‘There Shall Be No Poor Among You’:  Deuteronomy’s Vision and the Christian Church, http://people.bethel.edu/~pvogt/handouts/PP/NoPoor.pdf 

[2] William Willimon, Acts:  Interpretation A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville:  Westminister/John Knox, 2010).  p. 51.

[3] J. Bradley Chance, Acts: Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary, (Macon:  Smyth and Helwys, 2007), p. 82. 

[4] Tom Long in Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 4, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, general editors,  (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009), p. 432.

[5] As told by Scott Hoezee at http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/easter-2b-2/?type=old_testament_lectionary

[6] Oscar A. Romero, The Violence of Love, ) James R. Brockman, translator, (San Francisco:  Harper and Row, 1988), pp. 44-45

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