A Reflection on Acts 2:42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

The early church had a vision.  They saw society around them being oppressed by an occupying power and they knew that only a truly revolutionary idea would offer any kind of alternative, and so as Acts 2:42 says ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’  In short, they devoted themselves to bringing the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.  The church still bears witness to this today, and there are still a few crackpots and revolutionaries trying to keep this vision of truly communal living alive, but if we’re being totally honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that this kind of lifestyle isn’t exactly common in circles Christian or otherwise.  We are told that this vision cannot work, that it’s utopian, that it’s “great in theory, but not in practice.”

One American preacher I came across used the example of a beautiful John Deere lawnmower.  Now you’ll have to excuse me, because I’m no lawnmower aficionado, but I’ve got to say that I question his choice of example.  You know you’re dealing with first world problems when your example is a lawnmower!  Now this preacher felt that there were problems with the model of communal living in Acts 2.  “What happens when your communal lawnmower is left without gas?”, he asks.  “What happens when two want to mow at the same time?  Will all five take equal care of it?  Who decides how clean it should be kept?  Who decides when the blades should be sharpened?  Who does the maintenance?”

Have you ever noticed when children play together that often when one picks up a toy belonging to the other one, that other one will snatch it back or complain bitterly?  Then the parents have to jump in and be all like “Oh well done for looking out for yourself, because it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there!”  No, me neither.  Actually, what a good parent does is jump right in and tell their child that they should share their toys, because they know that selfishness will eventually impair their ability to form meaningful relationships.

It could just me, but I think there may be something wrong when we teach our children to share, but for some reason can’t share a lawnmower because ‘Dave doesn’t clean it after he uses it, and Mary definitely won’t have filled it up again.’  We live in a time when the world’s resources are running out, when overconsumption is spurring on climate change at an unprecedented rate, when literally billions of people can’t afford to feed themselves, and we’re worried about who gets to use the lawnmower on Saturday afternoon?  It seems to me that if it wasn’t laughing at such a profoundly unchristian idea, the church in Acts would be crying because of it, and crying out against it!

It’s time to grow up!  To behave like adults should behave!  To talk to people, listen to people, but most of all to have some faith.  Yes, some people might not pull their weight, some people might take the micky, but it’s not individualism that’s our model for church in Acts 2.  It’s not individualism that prevents climate change, advances social justice, and ultimately changes the world, it’s community.  Cooperation.  Relationship.

Acts 2 says the early church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  They were together and had all things in common.  They spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.  The thing is, so far we’ve been talking about things, but it’s not things that matter really.  The Kingdom of God is about more than just things.  When we devote ourselves to learning together, to eating together, to praying together, to just being together, Acts 2 shows us that that’s when we see things in their proper context.  That’s when things start to serve rather than control.  That’s when everyone gets fed, when everyone gets a roof over their heads, everyone gets an education, everyone starts to realise they’re made for more than just blindly consuming.  When we start viewing each other with suspicion though, we refuse the Kingdom of God permission to break into our lives.

There’s a good reason when we say the Lord’s prayer together we say the words “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven” before we say the words “Give us this day our daily bread”.  When the kingdom is our first consideration, we give it the space to bring bread for all people.  Not more bread than we need, and not less bread than we need, but our daily bread.  In the early church, daily bread could be found in the Agapé meal.  What would happen was that the community would all sit down to eat, but a part of the bread and wine would be taken from the meal to be used for Holy communion, which would follow the meal.  The truly amazing thing about communion was that it was seen as a prophetic act.  It was a foreshadowing of the heavenly banquet, at which all were welcome, and so like the Agapé meal, it was also an inherently communal act too.

What is our vision today?  We perhaps have to admit that whilst we can learn from the church of Acts, society is different today.  By and large we may have to conceive of communal living in slightly different ways.  I think this may be an area where the great liberation theologian and radical Catholic priest Gustavo Gutiérrez may be able to help us:

The “poor” person today is the oppressed one, the one marginated from society, the member of the proletariat struggling for the most basic rights; the exploited and plundered social class, the country struggling for its liberation.  In today’s world the        solidarity and protest of which we are speaking have an evident and inevitable   “political” character insofar as they imply liberation.  To be with the oppressed is to           be against the oppressor… to be in solidarity with the “poor,” understood in this way, means to run personal risks-even to put one’s life in danger.[1]

We are lucky enough to live in a very different context to the South America of the 1970s, where Gutiérrez was writing, however his words can still be of use.  We live in a society where according to the Office of National Statistics, 33% of the UK population experienced poverty in at least one year between 2010 and 2013.  That’s 19.3 million people experiencing poverty in the UK.[2]  We live in a society where rough sleeping has risen by 134% since 2010.[3]  We live in a world where according to the Global Humanitarian Forum’s Human Impact Report on Climate Change, 300,000 people already die every year as a result of climate change, and a further 325 million people per year are seriously affected by the devastation it causes.[4]  Clearly, as a society the struggles we face and are going to be facing, are profoundly difficult.  Perhaps most importantly of all, we live in a period of division.  The church, that’s us, needs to speak prophetically into this.  We need to insist that community, that relationship, that love, are the only solutions.  And we can do it!  Acts 2:47 says that ‘day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.’  That tiny number in the upper room were able to start a movement that today numbers billions.  If they can do that guided by the Spirit, that same spirit can guide us as we speak a challenge of love.

[1] Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, trans. and ed. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1988), 173.

[2] Office for National Statistics. “Persistent Poverty in the UK and EU, 2008-2013”, 1, Office for National Statistics website, accessed 08/05/2017, http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20160105160709/http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_403629.pdf

[3]Homeless Link. “Rough Sleeping – Our Analysis”, Homeless Link website, accessed 08/05/2017, http://www.homeless.org.uk/facts/homelessness-in-numbers/rough-sleeping/rough-sleeping-our-analysis

[4] Global Humanitarian Forum, “Human Impact Report – Climate Change: The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis”, pp. 1-2 and 78, Global Humanitarian Forum website, accessed 08/05/2017, available at: http://www.ghf-ge.org/human-impact-report.pdf

This blog post was adapted from a short sermon delivered at Elvet Methodist Church, Durham in May 2017.

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