"A Common Life"
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts January 9, 2005
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2005 by Mark D. Roberts
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Today we finally get back to the series I began in September, "Forward to Basics." As you may recall, we were working bit by bit through the description of the earliest Christian church in Acts 2. Peter had just preached his first sermon, calling people to repent and to give their lives to Christ. We pick up the story in Acts 2, verse 41. Listen to God's Word.
Scripture Reading: Acts 2:41-44
So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 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;
A Most Embarrassing Moment
|As I think back upon my life, at times I cringe with embarrassment over things I have said and done. I remember, for example, a time in the first month of my freshman year of college. I had attended a meeting of the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship, where I met an older student named Anne. In the course of our conversation, she suggested that we have lunch sometime. This wasn't a pick up line, mind you, just an exercise in Christian charity. But when we met in the Freshman Union for lunch, I wanted to impress her nevertheless, so I was riding high on my intellectual horse . . . you know, big words, big ideas, lots of arrogance thrown in for good measure. (Women love this sort of thing!)
A picture of the building that was the Freshman Union in 1975. Now it's the Barker Center for the Humanities.
Anyway, when Anne asked me how I described myself ideologically, I said proudly, "I'm a Christian and a communist." Yes, I really said that. (Sigh!) Then I went on to explain, oh so cleverly, how the early Christian community in Acts 2 shared their goods together and this was a form of communism. Anne, who was a very sharp and intuitive woman, (she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in Psychology) was also quite sensitive. She graciously received my explanation and only gently suggested that just maybe there was a difference between the voluntary sharing of possessions among Christians, such as we see in Acts 2, and communism, in which the state owns everything. My attempt to defend myself to Anne was pathetic, and it was the last time, truly, that I ever called myself a communist. Today, as I think back upon that conversation, I cringe. In my feeble attempt to look brilliant and provocative I simply played the fool.
Today I have the chance to make amends, to erase the foolishness I once professed, because today we're looking at the very text I brandished that day in the Freshman Union. (And, thanks to the Internet, I actually found out what became of Anne. She's an accomplished author and psychotherapist. If this sermon's any good, I just might send it to her as a gesture of repentance.)
Two Points from a Straightforward Text
I want to be clear from the outset that Anne was right about Acts 2. This passage is not a treatise on political government. Rather it is describing how the early church functioned in its internal relationships. To derive communism from this passage, which, by the way, was once common among liberal Christian interpreters, is to miss entirely the context and point of the text. It tells us how we should relate to each other as brothers in sisters in Christ, not how we ought to live as citizens of a socialist secular state.
Acts 2:44 tells us that the earliest Christians "were together" and "had all things in common." We should spend a few moments unpacking these two phrases.
The Greek expression translated as "were together" means, quite literally, to be in the same physical location with someone else. Luke's point is that the first Christians were not merely united in theology or in spirit, but in physical proximity. To put it in today's language, they "hung out" together. They had plenty of "face time."
Given the fact that we're talking here about more than 3,000 people, Acts 2:44 refers not so much to a giant gathering of believers as to what we would call small groups. You can see this clearly if you hop down to verse 46, where it says, "Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home . . . ." In other words, they gathered in each other's homes to share meals together, a particularly intimate form of fellowship in the world of first-century Judaism.
The phrase "had all things in common" means more or less that the early Christians "had all things in common." To put it a little differently, they shared their stuff together. Apparently they came to think differently about their personal possessions after they believed Jesus to be the Messiah. The whole concept of "my stuff" faded away, replaced by a new sense of "our stuff." It's rather like the classic Spanish expression of hospitality, "Mi casa es su casa," "My house is your house." The early believers, freely, not in response to any requirement laid upon them by the state or by the apostles, came to see their possessions as something to be shared with others.
According to Acts, this new way of thinking about one's stuff was a result of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Yet we know from the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 that it wasn't easy for all of the believers to think about their stuff in such a communal way. I expect that for some there was a learning process involved, similar to what happens when people first get married.
As a pastor I get to hang out with people as they're approaching their weddings and figuring out what life in common is all about. I sometimes chuckle over the language lessons these couples are learning. The bride-to-be will say something like, "We went shopping for my china today, oh, I mean our china." The soon-to-be-husband will say something like, "Well, she isn't so sure she wants to have our big screen TV in our living room." Of course the language issues simply reflect what's going on in the hearts of the engaged couple. They're learning to think, feel, and talk as if their possessions are truly held in common.
So, whether what we read about in Acts 2 was an immediate miracle forged by the Spirit, or whether it reflected a process of spiritual growth, or, as I would imagine, some combination of the two, nevertheless, in time the earliest Christians learned to share their possessions with each other, even as they shared their lives together.
Living Acts 2:44 Today
There you have it, Acts 2:44 in a nutshell: the first believers hung out together and they shared their stuff together. There's nothing terribly challenging about these concepts. But applying them to our life in community today, now there's something we can't finish in one sentence.
Last Thursday morning at the Pastor's Study we spent about ten minutes working out the ideas in Acts 2:44, and about forty minutes hammering away on the implications for us. That part of the conversation could have gone on much longer. In the time I have left today I want to highlight a couple of the clear implications from Acts 2:44
We Need to Be Together
The first implication of Acts 2:44 couldn't be more obvious. Like the earliest Christians, we need to be together. We need to be in contexts where we share physical proximity with other believers. Of course this happens when we gather for worship each week. But, as I mentioned earlier, the kind of being together implied in this passage cannot be experienced in large group interactions. It requires face-to-face interaction, consistency, reciprocity, and intentionality.
At the end of my embarrassing meeting with Anne in the Freshman Union, she invited me to join a small group that was gathering in her suite in Winthrop House. I gladly accepted, partly because I was lonely, partly because I wanted to meet some other Christians, and mostly because Anne was a kind person. The next week I showed up at Anne's place, along with about seven other people.
What happened that night wasn't particularly special on the surface. We got to know each other a bit. We studied a passage of Scripture and prayed for each other. That's about all. Yet I look back upon that meeting as a watershed event in my life. Why? There are two reasons.
First, that night I met people who became some of my closest friends in life, some guys with whom I shared everything throughout college and thereafter. Relationships that began so ordinarily became truly exceptional, and changed my life.
Second, that night in Anne's living room was my first adult experience of a Christian small group. What I experienced there has had a profound impact on my life. Since that fateful evening in October 1975 I have been involved in some sort of Christian small group throughout most of the last three decades. I've been in all-male groups, mixed groups, and couples groups. I've been in groups that met weekly, bi-weekly, and monthly. I've been in groups that emphasized Bible study and ones that focused more on sharing. A common element in every group has been a good chunk of intercessory prayer. Most of the most important decisions of my life have been hammered out in the fellowship of these small groups, including the decision to come to Irvine as your pastor. I simply cannot imagine living my life as a Christian apart from the intimacy, challenge, support, and prayerful encouragement of my various small groups.
Of course I'm not unique in this regard. Many of you would say exactly the same thing if you had the chance. And this should come as no surprise. What we see in the earliest Christian church isn't accidental. Rather, it's a reflection of how God has made us. It's a result of what it means to be one of God's people in Christ. To put it bluntly, the Christian life is not meant to be a solitary experience. Intimate fellowship with other Christians is absolutely essential to genuine Christian living. (As most of you know, my book After "I Believe" is a 200-page exposition of this very idea.)
In my estimation, about half of the members of this church are in some sort of regular, intentional place of small group fellowship. I'm including, by the way, our Sunday School fellowship classes, weekday Bible studies, and the like. You who are involved in such groups get what I'm talking about here, and that's just great. My first word to you is: Keep it up! My second word to you is: Invite others to join you! You see, there are a whole bunch of people in this church and in the world beyond who desperately need the sort of fellowship you and I might take for granted. You can be instrumental in their getting into genuine community, much as Anne was instrumental my life thirty years ago. Her simple act of inviting me to her group, even though I had been such a dolt in our lunchtime conversation, changed my life immeasurably.
Now if you're in the half of our church that is basically disconnected from other people, my purpose today is not to come down on you. I expect that many of you realize that you need high quality fellowship with other believers, but you're just not sure how to make this happen. Others of you may be like me in early October of 1975. You've been unaware of how important and wonderful small-group Christian fellowship can be. My point today isn't to hammer you with guilt, but rather to encourage you. Friends, find a place where you can connect with other believers in a more personal and consistent way. If you don't know where to start, I can make this very easy for you. Pick one of our weekly adult fellowship groups. We've got several excellent opportunities on Sunday mornings during all three services. There are midweek options for both women and men. And if you can't seem to find a good fit, ask some of the people you know in this church for help.
The bottom line is this: like the first Christians, you need to "be together" with other believers in a place where you can share life together, where you can "Rejoice with those who rejoice, [and] weep with those who weep" (Romans 12:15). And, I might add, we who are members of this church family need you too. Irvine Presbyterian Church will only be what God has envisioned us to be when each and every one of us is meaningfully connected to the body of believers here.
We Need to Share Our "Stuff" Together
The second implication of Acts 2:44 is also fairly obvious: we need to learn to share our stuff together. We need to learn to see our possessions as something God has entrusted to us so that we might serve him in the world, and that service happens for every Christian in the context of community. This means that my possessions aren't just mine. In a very real sense they are also yours. They are ours together
Now before you folks start helping yourself to my car or my computer, you should remember a few crucial points. For one thing, Acts is clear that God-honoring sharing always involves free choice. It is not coerced. And for another thing, we in this church already have shared our stuff together in profound ways. I want to share some examples, both to encourage you and to challenge you to be creative in applying Acts 2:44 in your own life.
Example #1. Every now and then I'll see some cute little girl in a beautiful Sunday dress that looks vaguely familiar. So I'll ask Linda, "Hey, did Kara have a dress like that?" Linda will respond, "Well, actually that was Kara's dress. And before it was hers, it was Louisa's. And then we gave it to Megan, who gave it to Molly." And so it goes. Some dresses in our church have been passed on five or more times. That's great. (It also redeems the fact that many of this dresses cost way too much money in the first place!)
Example #2. My second example has to do with what I consider to be one of the most outstanding facilities for youth ministry I've ever seen. No, I'm not talking about our youth lounge plus patio plus high school basement downstairs, though I could. Rather, I'm referring to what the adults in this church call "the Dietz's house." The kids refer to it simply as "Dietziland." Now at the risk of embarrassing my friends Jon, Jennifer, Tricia, and Christina Dietz, let me explain what I mean for those of you who aren't tracking with me.
|The Dietz family has a gorgeous home in the foothills of Tustin. It features a humongous back yard and a giant swimming pool, complete with a water slide, a cave, a high diving platform, and, well, you name it. Legally, it's the Dietz's house (well, and probably Bank of America's or something). But the Dietz family gets Acts 2:44, so they are exceptionally generous in sharing their home with the rest of us. The junior high group has met there more times than I can count. And when we needed a place for immersion baptisms, we called up Jon and Jennifer who were more than happy to host us.
Some of our junior highers enjoying the Dietz's pool
Example #3. Perhaps the greatest example we have of living out Acts 2:44 isn't obvious at first. But when you think it through, you'll realize how this example is a fitting outgrowth of what we see in the earliest Christian community.
What am I talking about? I'm referring to the physical property we hold in common, to this Sanctuary, and the new Office Building and Youth Basement. I'm talking about the Fellowship Hall, the Jenny Hart Building, and the property on which these buildings rest. We share such things together, and they represent a major investment for many of us. I know that Linda and I have put more money into this church than into anything else during the last fourteen years except for our home and our food. The same is true for many of us here today, and it will continue to be so as we invest in the future development of this facility.
I'm mentioning this partly because it would be easy to overlook it. Of course the earliest Christians weren't sharing in church property together because there wasn't such a thing yet. But our effort to build and maintain this facility - and to invest in the development of facilities for our mission partners - is a logical and blessed extension of Acts 2:44.
I'm also mentioning our shared ownership of this property because I'd like us to stop for a moment and enjoy together what our shared investment has accomplished. My friends, this Sanctuary is one of the finest places for worship I have ever known. Of course it is God's building most of all. But God has entrusted it to us. It doesn't belong to some entity called Irvine Presbyterian Church. It belongs to you and to me, so that we might enjoy it and use it well for God's purposes.
Similarly, we're about to finish the Administration Building - if the rain ever lets up long enough for us to get the exterior done. This also is a marvelous facility. I'm proud - though I hope not sinfully so - of what our efforts have produced. I'm pleased to be able to offer such excellent support to our fine staff. And I'm thrilled beyond what I can express that in a few weeks we'll have one of the coolest high school spaces I've ever seen. As you see this building, I want you to remember that this doesn't belong to the staff, though we have offices there. Even "my office" is merely on loan to me for a while. Someday it will be used by the next pastor, and then the next, and the next. Again, this new building doesn't belong to some anonymous corporation called "Irvine Presbyterian Church." Rather, it's ours, entrusted to us by God. It's your building and my building. And as we use it, enjoy it, and - yes - pay for it, we are following in the footsteps of Acts 2:44.
Friends, by citing these positive example of how we're already sharing our stuff together, I don't mean to imply that we've arrived, that we're doing everything Acts 2:44 would require of us. Far from it! We've only just begun. But I've offered these examples partly to break us out of the rut that sees having things in common too narrowly, as if we must all abandon private ownership and literally own everything together. The name on the deed, frankly, isn't the main point. It's how we use what God has given to us that really matters.
I've also given these examples to encourage you to be creative with the use of what God has entrusted to you for his purposes - and for all of us as well. We've just started to tap our potential as a church that has all things in common. The more we realize this potential, the more we will be the church God has envisioned us to be.
What is God saying to you today? Do you need to get involved in more intentional Christian community? Do you need to "be together" with your brothers and sisters in this church? If so, then why not say "Yes, Lord" and jump in.
Or have you been hoarding your stuff, whether that stuff is material, intellectual, musical, or whatever? Is it time for you to start sharing with the rest of us? As we attempt to start new ministries and to keep our existing ones strong, this will only work if more and more of us share what God has entrusted to us. What might God have you share with this body, so that you might have the joy of seeing God work through you, and so that we might be more fully the church God has called us to be?
Dear friends, may it be truly said of us, at it was once said of the first Christians: "They were together and had all things in common."