for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred:
open the doors of our hearts,
that we may seek the good of others
and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace,
to the praise of God the Father. Amen.
32 All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. 33 The apostles testified powerfully to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God’s great blessing was upon them all. 34 There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them 35 and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need.
36 For instance, there was Joseph, the one the apostles nicknamed Barnabas (which means “Son of Encouragement”). He was from the tribe of Levi and came from the island of Cyprus. 37 He sold a field he owned and brought the money to the apostles.
Acts 4:32-35 (NLT)
It always rather bemuses me why the church insists on reading the Book of Acts immediately after Easter. Surely there is enough else going on between Thomas and his doubts, the friends travelling to Emmaus and Peter getting reinstated after his earlier epic fail? Surely we don’t need this breathless, hotch-potch of early church adventures added to the mix? But no, the Church is adamant. The reading from Acts MUST be used, my lectionary book says in uncompromising italics. And being a mainly well-behaved sort, I do.
But, of course, there is a good reason why the Church insists we read Acts during the Easter season. It is our annual reminder of what Easter means in the life of ordinary people like you and me. It shows us what a community of Easter people looks like. It takes us back to what it means to be the church. And this year, more than ever, as we carefully emerge from lockdown, perhaps it is good to remind ourselves what it means to be Church, what it means to be Christ’s body here in Stockingford today. So, over the coming weeks, Jo, Colin, Nigel and I are going to focus on these Acts readings and see what they meant to the people at the time, but also what they might be saying to us today as we try to be God’s people, sharing God’s love in our community.
Our Acts reading today is only a few lines long, but it is full! We are told that the believers were of one heart and soul; that they shared everything they had; that those who had experienced the risen Christ told what they had seen with great power; that no one went without and that Joseph was amongst those who shared all he had earning himself the nickname Barnabas which means “Son of Encouragement”. It is a challenging but inspiring vision of what true Christian community is like.
I want to draw out a few themes from this short punchy reading. The first is that this early Christian community was united. Now, first century Palestine was a very diverse place. The Jewish community itself was divided into different traditions. As in any community there would be the haves and the have nots. There would be men and women, young and old. The earlier chapters of Acts tell us that this early Christian community began at the feast of Pentecost when pilgrims from across the Mediterranean world flocked to Jerusalem, so there would be people of different races and tongues. But they were one in Christ Jesus, one in heart and soul – at the very core of their being they were family. No one was better than anyone else. No one mattered more than anyone else. All were sinners saved by grace, and rejoicing in the new life Jesus offered.
Our congregation today is no less diverse. In our church, we have those with plenty and those who struggle. We have different ages and races and church backgrounds. Some of us have been coming to St Paul’s for generations. Others are new. We are divided on politics. We include Monarchists and Republicans, Remainers and Leavers, and we support a wide range of football and rugby teams. Some of us worship in the building, others worship online. But we unite around this one truth – that God loves us and came to us in Jesus.
This is something that I am sure we will have no trouble remembering as we emerge from this pandemic year when we have missed one another so much. But it is something to hold on to as hopefully we welcome more people to our church as part of our 200 by 200 journey. No one is better than anyone else. No one matters more. We are each God’s gift to one another in all our wonderful differences and we are united in our trust in Jesus.
The second thing is that the new church community were generous and shared what they had. Now, that early church community expected Jesus’ return almost immediately, so they had no need for fields or belongings. Their experience of communal living might not entirely work in today’s church, but that same spirit of generosity and of care for one another is key. We cannot be indifferent to one another’s needs and struggles. And it is always worth pausing from time to time and reflecting on whether we are using what God has given us for good – be that a skill or a talent, be that free time, a nice home or a welcoming garden, be that a healthy income… All things come from you and of your own do we give you is a well known offertory prayer. So let’s stay grateful and generous with whatever God has given us, and do our best to meet one another’s needs when we can.
Lastly, the early church community was one of encouragement. The apostles encouraged the other believers by sharing the truth of our faith. And Joseph encouraged the apostles so much that they nicknamed him the Son of Encouragement! Oh what a joy to be part of an encouraging church. That has certainly been my experience of being vicar here at St Paul’s and I do hope I have to some extent returned the favour and encouraged you in your faith. Because encouragement is so wonderful in church communities. Every time you thank one of the tech team, or celebrate the skills of the sewing circle, or mention to the person leading prayers how much their words meant to you, or enjoy the beautiful flowers in church or notice some act of care or service in our church life, you are encouraging that person that they – and what they can do – matters and is a valued part of our shared life. There is so much going on in our church life that no one can notice it all, so encouragement has to be a whole church activity. It has to be a culture. I think we have that culture here, but never lose it because it is an incredible gift.
So the early church community was a community that was united, generous and encouraging, and I hope at our best we are that too. Of course we will mess up and miss the mark sometimes – nowhere is perfect – but I love serving a church that mainly has those values at its heart. Not just because it makes for a wonderful experience as your vicar, but because they are essential for the sharing of the Gospel. We could have the best preacher in the Diocese, the snazziest technology, the slickest outreach programme, but as St Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, all those things are clanging gongs without love. Unless people meet the love of God in the way we treat them and one another, nothing else will work. In a world saturated in fake news and hard sells, people want something authentic and real. We need to talk about God’s love and hope and then have to bloomin’ live it!
After this snappy little reading, there is one of the most troubling tales in the New Testament – the story of Ananias and Sapphira, a couple who, like Barnabas, sell their field, but keep some of the proceeds back and lie about it. The outcome is that both drop dead. It is a terrifying tale. But it illustrates how deadly inauthenticity is to the community of faith. I don’t think that their decision to retain some of the money was as much of a problem as their inability to be real and honest with their fellow believers. Deceit and dishonesty utterly undermined this little community’s core values.
Because the authentic early church community – united, generous and encouraging as it was – was a powerful thing. As chapter 5 v14 of Acts says “Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women…”
So, as we travel through the book of Acts, learning more of what it means to be a community of resurrection faith, let’s be authentic, united across our glorious differences, generous with whatever God has given us and encouraging to one another. May people encounter God’s love among us and may that draw them to the risen Jesus.
Eternal God, our heavenly Father, we bless your holy name for all that you have
given us in and through the life of Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
We give you thanks:
for his long and full life;
for his strength of character;
and for his devotion and service to family, nation and Commonwealth.
We praise you for:
the many contributions he made to our national life;
and the encouragement he gave to so many, especially to the young.
All God of mercy,
entrusting into your hands all that you have made
and rejoicing in our communion with all your
we make our prayers through Jesus Christ our Saviour.