Acts 4: Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no

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1 Acts 4: 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. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 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. 35 They laid it at the apostles feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 1

2 The Uncommon Good The history of Christianity takes a decisive turn with the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine in the year 312. Had Constantine not converted to the Christian faith, Christianity may not have become the world religion that it is. It s quite possible that none of us would be here in church or even call ourselves Christian. That s because the conversion of this one man was a turning point in world history. But before we look at the consequences of Constantine s conversion, how it affects us still today, and how it relates to today s scripture passage, we first need a little background. Late in the third century (200s) the Roman Empire was proving too large for one man to govern [SLIDE]. The empire covered an enormous amount of territory, from modern-day Spain in the west to Syria in the east, and from the snowy peaks of the Alps in the north to the sands of North Africa in the south. Plus, despite its size, the empire faced continual threats along its borders from smaller empires and from nomadic (wandering) tribes whose mobility made them nearly impossible for a centralized army, such as Rome s, to defeat. And so in 286 [SLIDE], the emperor before Constantine, Diocletian, divided the Roman Empire in two, creating a western empire and an eastern empire. A few years later, the empire was divided again, this time into four governing regions. There were two emperors in the west and two in the east. Constantine was one of two emperors in the west. He ruled over Spain, Britain, and Gaul (modern-day France). In the three centuries since it had been founded by the first emperor, Octavian, the Roman Empire had expanded from its center in Rome. Along with the growth of the empire, something else grew as well [SLIDE]. In the middle decades of the first century, a new religion began to emerge. It grew out of Judaism, with which it shared some similarities, but from which it also differed. At the center of the religion 2

3 was a man who had been born during the time that Octavian was emperor. He was a man of humble origins and yet his followers called him Lord, a title that in Roman society was reserved solely for the emperor. This new religion, which had somehow survived the execution of its founder, not only survived but somehow grew in the years, decades, and centuries that followed his death. The movement began in Jerusalem but soon spread to other cities, including even to the capital of the empire, Rome. This growth occurred despite, or some might even say because of, periodic persecution. An early Christian theologian famously said that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church. The reason he could say that is that throughout the first three centuries Christians, as they came to be known, suffered waves of persecution at the hands of the Romans. Many believers gave their lives for their faith [SLIDE]. The last large-scale persecution of Christians by Rome began in 303, about three years before Constantine became emperor. Interestingly, the Roman ruling class regarded Christians as atheists because they did not acknowledge the Roman gods. That was their chief crime atheism. To put an end once and for all to the problem of Christian atheism, in 303 all Roman citizens were ordered to sacrifice to the Roman gods or face death. In the wake of this proclamation Christians died in great numbers, and yet somehow the faith continued to grow. As many Christians were martyred, even more new converts joined the faith. The Romans eventually recognized this, and Constantine, who was now one of the four emperors, eventually relented and stopped the killings in 311. Yet the greatest event that would affect the fortunes of Christianity would occur a year later. Rome at this time was on the brink of civil war. Constantine, who was a general as well as emperor, was preparing his armies to attack the armies of his fellow emperor Maxentius, who ruled over Italy and North Africa. As he brought his armies to the doorstep of Rome, Constantine experienced a vision [SLIDE]. He saw a sign in the sky comprising two Greek letters, chi and rho. They happen to be the 3

4 first two letters of the word Christ. In addition to seeing the letters Constantine heard a voice from the sky say to him, In this, conquer. Considering this a favorable omen, Constantine had his soldiers decorate their shields with the chi-rho symbol. Regardless of whether it was an omen, the next day Constantine and his armies defeated the much larger armies of Maxentius. Constantine then ruled the entire western empire. In time he would unite the western and eastern empires and rule as sole emperor of the entire empire. Constantine attributed his success in battle to the Christian God who had shown him favor [SLIDE]. As a result, in 313 he eliminated restrictions against the practice of all non-roman religions, including Christianity. He himself began a process of conversion to the Christian faith. It s probably not accurate to use the modern phrase born again to describe Constantine s conversion. It wasn t an immediate but a gradual conversion. But eventually he would go on to become a leading figure within the church, even calling the first international church council. Within a few decades of Constantine s death Christianity would complete its transition from a persecuted religious movement of martyrs to the state religion of the empire. This was an incredible transition that began with the conversion of one man. I know what you re thinking: Thanks for the history lesson. That was interesting, but what does all of that have to do with me and with today s passage from Acts? Those are excellent questions. Let me begin by saying that the Christian community that we find in Acts 4 is quite different from the Christian community of Constantine s day [SLIDE]. In Acts 4 Christians are still a relatively small community confined to Jerusalem and the surrounding region. Acts 4:4 estimates the number of new Christians in Jerusalem at about five thousand. Because they are small in number they have not yet come to be seen as a problem by Rome, and therefore, they have not faced persecution. In fact, the story of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, will be told in Acts 7, and he dies not at the hands of Rome but his fellow Jews. Christians at this point aren t even known by the name Christian. 4

5 They view themselves as Jews. However, unlike the majority of their fellow Jews, they believe that in Jesus Christ he who was crucified they have witnessed God s promised and long-awaited Messiah. The setting for Acts 4 is Jerusalem. It is not long after the death of Jesus. You may remember that immediately after the death of Jesus the disciples were in disarray. To borrow a phrase from The Lord of the Rings, the fellowship was broken. After Jesus was crucified the disciples gathered together in the house where they usually met. They locked the door in fear of the religious authorities because they thought, If they killed Jesus, they may come looking for us as well. They did not want to end up like their teacher. The group of disciples that we encounter in Acts 4 is vastly different from those same disciples who huddled together in fear and behind locked doors, afraid of what a knock at the door might bring. In contrast to the fear that characterized the disciples after Jesus crucifixion, the disciples in Acts 4 give their testimony with great power. That would include Peter who earlier had denied even knowing Christ, but now he, too, boldly proclaims his testimony to the resurrection of Jesus. What accounts for this sudden display of courage and fearlessness on the part of the disciples? Verse 33 actually gives us the answer [SLIDE]. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus (Acts 4:33). The resurrection of Jesus is what happened. When the disciples are hiding in that house, unsure of what to do next, Jesus appears to them. His presence his physical presence, with his body still showing the wounds of crucifixion fills them with joy and wonder. At long last they finally understand the message he had been telling them from the beginning that the Son of Man must suffer, die, and rise again. Seeing their teacher again in the flesh is the turning point for the disciples. It makes them converts. They are converted from fearfulness to fearlessness, from individuals concerned with their own well being what will happen to me? to a community that 5

6 displays radical fellowship, no longer living for themselves but for one another. Such is the power of the resurrection. Now let s look at how this fellowship expresses itself [SLIDE]. When we use the word fellowship today we tend to think of the fellowship that follows the service, which is a pleasant time of conversation with friends and acquaintances over coffee and snacks. This is not at all to disparage that sort of fellowship, which is important, but fellowship means so much more than coffee hour. This is where language study is helpful. In verse 32 we read that the community of believers owned everything in common. The Greek word for in common is koina. Maybe that word is new to you, but I ll bet that you know a related word koinonia. Koinonia is usually translated in English as fellowship, but by fellowship is meant not coffee hour but communion, i.e., the spirit that binds people together and creates a sense of community. The Christian community in Jerusalem is bound together by koinonia to the extent that even their possessions are owned koina, i.e., in common. To some extent this reflects the Greek and Roman idea of friendship, which had a strong philosophical basis in those societies. But this is friendship on a massively generous scale. This is treating as friend, not only those with whom they feel a close emotional connection, but every single member of the community. And by friends we re not talking Facebook friends you know, those acquaintances we barely know or remember whom we add or who add us as friends. No, this is an infinitely stronger bond. This is a friendship that declares, What s mine is yours. Make yourself at home for this is your home. Mi casa es su casa. There is no rich or poor. Private property is sold and the proceeds distributed to those most in need. Yes, wealth is redistributed. What a bunch of bleeding-heart socialists! Are these Christians or communists? In reality, to describe the early Christian community as Communist, as one of my professors in college did, is to miss the mark. What we see in the early Christians is not a political and economic system instituted and controlled by the government 6

7 [SLIDE]. What we see is a community of the faithful, united in their belief in the transformative power of God s love, a love that was revealed to them in the person of Jesus Christ the one whom they saw suffer, die, and rise again. The love of God resurrected Jesus from the dead, for Christ did not resurrect himself. And the love of Jesus for his disciples resurrected their hope. When they were lost, confused, and afraid, he returned to them and assured them that they would never again be without his presence. He promised to be with them always, to the end of the age. And this hope, born of love, transformed the way they saw one another and, therefore, the way that they lived. The early Christians in Jerusalem did not reflect the values of the empire in which they lived. The society they constructed for themselves did not value power or possessions, but it possessed great power because God s grace was upon them. In modern terms we would say that they lived an alternative lifestyle. They worked and lived not for their own personal good but for the common good. No doubt this strikes us as a radical way of life. And so it is. However, it does hold a certain appeal. Christian reform movements often express a desire to get back to the roots of the church, to the purity of the early church, before all the weight of centuries was added on to that simple structure. So, then, should we sell all our possessions and give the money to the church? Should we live communally all for one and one for all? There s room upstairs on the second floor. I don t think so. I could give a list of reasons why to do so would be impractical, if not impossible, in a modern urban society such as we live in. I could also say that Luke, the writer of Acts, is probably giving us an idealized picture of the early Christian community. I doubt that they shared literally everything in common. And the early Christians did not live without tension among themselves. In fact, it was the two most prominent apostles, Peter and Paul, who had the most public dispute. 7

8 Well, what then? Does this passage not have any relevance for us? And what about Constantine? Wasn t I supposed to tie this back to Constantine in some way? I call our attention again to verse 33, which I believe is the key to understanding this passage [SLIDE]. 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). Between great power and great grace lies the resurrection. It was the resurrection of Jesus Christ that bound the early Christian community together. The resurrection transformed them as a community. In fact, the resurrection made them a community. It is the same for us. We gather in this building every Sunday. Do you know why? It s not to listen to my sermon, as much as my ego would like that to be the case. It s not out of a sense of obligation, although some of us may feel that. It s not even out of a desire to be in fellowship, although we have that desire. The reason that we gather together for this worship service the reason that we have been formed into a community is because Jesus Christ is risen. The resurrection of Christ was transformative for the early Christians and it is transformative for us. Through Christ s resurrection we are bound together. We are formed into a community. And as a community we are sent out as witnesses, just as the first disciples were, to proclaim with great power our testimony to the resurrection of Jesus. That may seem like a daunting task. It s even more daunting when you consider that in many parts of the world today Christians are on the defensive militarily in the face of violent Islamic extremism, intellectually with regard to a more aggressive atheism, and practically because of the decline, at least in America and in Europe, in people who attend church. In the West especially we can no longer assume that the predominant culture is Christian. This assumption of Christian culture was known as Christendom. It began under Constantine, who was the first political ruler to show favor to Christianity. With the 8

9 conversion of Constantine, Christianity was no longer regarded as a threat to political power. That is unfortunate. I know it may seem like a good thing on the surface, but when Christianity became acceptable it gave the church a taste of political power. And the church enjoyed the taste and became gluttonous. The church ceased to be a community of outsiders and instead became the insiders. The church adopted the power of the sword and the pocketbook and forgot about the power of the resurrection. It is that power the power of the resurrection that we are reminded of in today s passage. Christ s resurrection instills faith. It inspires hope. It unites in love. It welcomes in the outsider the poor, the forgotten, the despised, the powerless and says to them to us welcome home. It binds us together as a community of Christ s disciples. We are united together for the common good of one another because in the resurrection of Jesus Christ God has shown to us all an uncommon goodness. 9

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