“Testifying to the resurrection”
Message preached on
April 8, 2018
She came asking for assistance. The pressures of an alcoholic husband and a stack of out-of-control bills seemed beyond her ability to cope. The real tragedy, though, of this plea for help was that it was being made to a stranger. You see, she was a Christian, actively involved in a church. But going to those people, who had led her to Christ, and revealing to them her needs, was something she felt she could not do.....
Isn’t that the way it often is? The very place to which, you’d think, persons should first turn for help - their own church - is frequently the last place they would ask. Why is that? Let’s reverse roles with this woman for a minute and ask ourselves, would we do the same if we faced similar circumstances? I mean, if there was a deep-seated problem in our home which seemed beyond our control, which threatened our financial, as well as our spiritual and emotional well-being, would we / could we reveal our need to this body of Christ? Maybe … Maybe not.
Perhaps it’s a matter of pride, or trust, or dignity. These reasons are not unimportant. I’ve been in churches where I wouldn’t dare to take such a risk. But even in the best of congregations, it takes a lot to ask for help - especially from people you’re close to. You know, we talk about how charity should begin at home. Home, however, is often the hardest place for it to happen. Sometimes it’s easier to ask a stranger for help, than it is to ask a fellow church member. But is that the way it should be?
In this morning’s scripture lesson, we see a description of the very first church. Listen to it again: “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... 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” (Acts 4:32, 34 35). There is something very appealing about these words, isn’t there?!
When I was in Brethren Volunteer Service, the organization I worked for was based at a church in Evanston, Illinois, right next to the city of Chicago. This congregation was not your typical, run of the mill congregation. Affiliated at that time with both the Mennonite Church, and the Church of the Brethren, “Reba Place Fellowship” was very intentional about being a Christian “community.” They took ‘living together’ very seriously. As in this scripture, they held all things in common, distributing to each as any had need. Their homes and cars were jointly owned. Their paychecks were placed into a common purse. In so doing they were able to multiply their resources, and really become a place where needs could be met.
This was all voluntary, though. It wasn’t a cult. Persons could leave whenever they wanted. I know several who did. For the most part, members lived together in households. Though I was not a member, I was privileged to live in such a household for a year. There were nine of us in all - a family with three preschoolers, two single women, as well as myself and another man, each with our own room (well, I shared mine with my BVS co-worker, Doug). Together, we all functioned as a family - sharing cooking, babysitting, cleaning and other duties. Some things, of course, were not shared. We were pretty intentional about personal space and relationships. These were evangelical Christians.
This was not a “commune,” full of ‘hippie’ types. It was a fellowship of believers in Jesus Christ. In many ways, my experience almost 40 years ago with these people came very close to living out this morning’s scripture. Sometimes, when things have gotten really ‘stressed out’ in my life, I have dreamed of returning to Reba Place, even though it has changed a great deal since I left. I have enough sense to know, though, that this is a pipe dream on my part. You can’t escape the stresses of life by moving somewhere else, even a place such as that.
You may have noticed that I omitted a verse, smack dab in the middle of this passage from the fourth chapter of Acts. Though some may feel the verse I left out interrupts the train of thought, I guess I consider it pretty important. It’s a sentence which, at least for our more modern ears, defines this group in Jerusalem as being different from a communist collective, or a cult. Between verses 32 and 34, which describe the sharing of possessions within the Jerusalem church at its birth, are these words: “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33).
What that verse says to me is that this kind of sharing, when it is authentic, is a grace from God, a sign of the resurrection. It does not happen by force, either the force of a government, as in communism, or the force of a leader’s will, as in a cult. Instead, it happens as a grace. When individuals are touched by the Holy Spirit and experience the power of the resurrection of Jesus, a new freedom is discovered, the joy of sharing what one has with others. Whenever believers share what they have, however great or small that sharing is, it’s a sign of the resurrection, that Jesus is risen, and is alive and moving in their midst.
Now, I didn’t read this description of the early church in Jerusalem, or tell you my story about Reba Place Fellowship, in order for us to go out and become just like them. Actually, after BVS when I was looking for a job as a congregational youth minister, I mentioned in an interview my experience at Reba Place, which was enough to nix my chances of being called by that particular search committee.
As appealing as it might seem, we know that the Jerusalem church was not the example that all other churches followed. We also know that part of their decision to let go of property for others rested in the belief that Jesus would return any day. They had to think a bit more long-term when Jesus didn’t return as soon as they expected. They adjusted, or better said, the Holy Spirit helped them to adapt to changing circumstances. Over time, every congregation adjusts, even that community near Chicago where I lived for a year. They’re now known as “Reba Place Church,” and most members no longer share a common purse. They’ve adjusted - spiritually adapted to changing times. I wonder, how might we adjust, how might the Holy Spirit be adapting us not only to survive, but to thrive, to live in the power of the resurrection in these changing times?
The disciples of Jesus underwent a major adjustment at Easter. Something died in them when Jesus was crucified. They could not remain what they were before. Like Thomas, we may find it difficult to adapt to new circumstances. As we shift from cross to empty tomb, we discover that it is easier to get in touch with the suffering and death of our Lord than it is to connect with his rising from the grave. We can, after all, relate to being nailed to some cross in life. Hey, we’ve even done our share of hammering. But resurrection is different. It’s harder to grasp, personally. Which is precisely the point. The empty tomb message is not about grasping and holding on for dear life. It’s about facing the world with open arms. By this I don’t mean with arms nailed in place. Instead, I’m talking about hands set free, though still bearing the signs of the cross.
When individuals are touched by the Holy Spirit and experience the power of the resurrection of Jesus, a new freedom is discovered, the joy of sharing what one has with others. Whenever believers share what they have, however great or small that sharing may be, it’s a sign of the resurrection, that Jesus is risen, and is alive and moving in their midst. With open arms we share our possessions. With open arms we share the good news. We don’t grasp the resurrection. No. It grasps us and nudges us toward others.
One of the reasons it’s easier for us to relate to the crucifixion than the resurrection, is that in the gospel movement of our faith we approach the cross face on. What is it you see every Sunday, throughout worship, bigger than life in the front of our sanctuary? The cross. That’s on purpose, you know. The empty tomb, on the other hand, is always behind us. It’s what propels us forward. We don’t constantly face it. Why should we? It’s empty. As that angel asked long ago, “why do you seek the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5). When we leave this place in a little while, we’ll be heading out with the empty tomb behind us. It nudges us to open our arms - which are no longer nailed to some cross - and share.
In the movie, “Places in the Heart,” a woman is suddenly widowed. Facing the possible loss of her farm and children in depression era Texas, Edna Spalding on her own would not have succeeded. But through a couple of unusual circumstances, she ended up with two boarders: Mr. Will, a blind World War I veteran, and Moze, an itinerant black handyman. Each shared what he or she could, even the children, Frank and Possum. In a way, each was handicapped - by grief, by age, by sex, by race, by war. None would survive alone. Their hands were individually nailed to a cross they had to bear.
But in the step-by-step movement of the gospel, their troubles weren’t the end of the story. By sharing what they had with one another - possessions, labor, encouragement, love - they accomplished the impossible together. Even a tornado couldn’t stop them. Against all odds this rag-tag group of supposed misfits became the first farm in the county to harvest their cotton crop, and thus won a prize which saved the farm. None of the five had a whole lot to give, individually, but somehow the love of each for the other, and the contribution of each for the whole made it work. Isn’t this, also, a picture of the church of Jesus Christ?
“With great power they gave (their) testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and a great grace was upon them all.”
Amen! May it be so among us.