11 May 2014

Glad and Generous Hearts

Acts 2: 41-47

Fourth Sunday in Easter/ 11th May 2014

Is Luke, the author of Acts, telling the truth? Is this what the early church was like?  It sounds like the perfect church, doesn’t it? A congregation devoted to the teaching of its pastors, attentive to every word, remembering the point of every sermon ever preached.  A congregation filled with awe as it looks upon a leadership—elders, deacons, trustees—that regularly performs “wonders and signs” (Acts 2:43).  A community where people share a common faith and a common life together, where true fellowship was a common occurrence, daily, weekly.  A church that pools its resources, selling property and possessions and goods and then sharing them freely, “as any has need” (Acts 2: 45). A church without budget problems and deficits. A church without conflict. A church with a clear vision and mission.  A church that eats together regularly, at worship and at home.  Praising God and seeking the common good of all people.  A church so amazing that it grows exponentially on a daily basis, continually growing and growing, forever and ever. Amen!

            I’ve never seen such a church.

            Catonsville Presbyterian Church might be an amazing congregation—and it is—but it’s not perfect. We might have a remarkable staff and gifted leadership—and we do—but it’s not anything close to what Luke describes here in Acts.  We’ve increased our giving levels as a church by discovering what faithful stewardship is all about, we’re doing great things through mission and advocacy, but we still have a way to go. It’s nothing like what we see in Acts 2. Membership rolls increasing daily?  Performing wonders and signs? A congregation filled with awe, all the time, 24/7?

            Is that what the early church was like?  Did such a church ever exist? At some level, we’re all jaded and skeptical. Maybe Luke isn't telling us what it was like. It seems too good to be true.

            Some think he was telling the truth, that this is what the early church was like, “back in the day,” in the Golden Age of the church.  Maybe.

Christians are often seduced by nostalgia, thinking that an earlier time is always better.  This appears to be the default mode of psyches shaped by the Garden-Fall narrative of the Bible.  The former days are often viewed as the better days. It’s all downhill from there. 

Perhaps those were the “glory days” of the Church. I don’t know. What I do know is that this way of thinking, that the past was better, is not always helpful because it sets us up for failure (and it might be false). In always comparing the present time with former times, somehow this time never seems to measure up.  So we become disappointed, depressed, discouraged about the state of the church and its future, worried about the state of the Presbyterian Church.  This way of thinking just isn't useful because it rarely fires our imaginations enough to respond to the present crisis and the opportunity of the moment.  Why do we keep looking back? We’re already east of Eden (Gen. 4:16), so why do we want to go back there?

            So, should we instead look forward?  Others see Acts 2 as an ideal, the perfect given so that we have something to strive for.  Some view Acts 2 as the goal, what the Church is supposed to look like; this is what we should be doing, working toward that time when all things will be held in common, when resources and gifts are shared, as any has need.  It’s obvious that what we have here is an ideal, because it's too good toe true.  It’s a vision. 

And as visions go, it’s not a bad one. Such a vision informed the social and economic reform movements of the nineteenth century, including the thought of Karl Marx (1818-1883).  Some forms of communism and socialism have their origin right here in Acts 2.[1] 

However, viewing Acts 2 as an ideal is equally unhelpful. An ideal always remains an ideal.  Always striving for it easily sets us up for failure and being disappointed by the real. It’s, then, easy for the church to become discouraged, because we don’t measure up to the ideal, that perfect church. It’s a waste of time and energy trying to get to utopia because it doesn't exist; utopia literally means “no place.”[2] It’s good to have goals and visions, but if they’re so unrealistic, so out of reach, in time we lose steam and we collapse or, worse, go to the other extreme, consigning ourselves to dystopia, reflected today in many novels, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006).

            What we find here in Acts 2 is not really nostalgia for the good ol’ days (although it might look that way), neither is it an ideal. It might sound like nostalgia because Luke is modeling his account on a particular form of Greek literature, a kind of “foundation story.”[3] A first-century reader of Acts, especially someone well educated, would have recognized this.  For example, Plato describes the early days of Athens this way: “none of its members possessed any private property, but they regarded all they had as the common property of all.”[4] Sound familiar? (See Acts 2:44-45). Because it was so in the past, it might be so again in a future ideal state.  

          But it’s important to know that having things in common was not an ideal within Rabbinic Judaism.  We know that at Qumran, the Essenes, a Jewish sect at the time of Jesus, did live in a community where possessions were held in common.[5]  Perhaps there’s a part of us that wants to keep this an ideal, then we’ll feel less guilty for not sharing what we do have. When on Friday Pope Francis called for the “legitimate redistribution of wealth” to the poor, he wasn't evoking an ideal, but preaching the Gospel.[6]

            Not nostalgia. Not an ideal. What is the church to do with a text like this?

Maybe it’s not about the church. Because we tend to think that Luke is describing what the early church looked like or might have looked like or could look like, it’s easy to assume that the focus here is on the church.  Yes, it has to do with the church.  The church matters, of course.  But as a surface reading of Acts will show, the protagonist of Luke’s story is not the church, but the Holy Spirit.  The one who makes everything happen, the character driving Luke’s narrative is not the church, but the Holy Spirit.  It’s the Holy Spirit who stands behind and beside the church, below and above and in the church, in the narrative, who causes everything to happen.  The first part of Acts 2 tells the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  Everything going on in the community that Luke describes, in the church, the ekklesia, in this association of people who have encountered the Spirit of the Risen Christ, is the result of the presence of God in their midst—within them and around them.

            Luke is not describing an ideal. He’s not saying this is what you should strive for.  He’s describing what happens when the Spirit of the Risen Christ shows up. He’s describing what happens when the Spirit is flowing through our lives.  You can see it most profoundly when people come together and form a community, an association, an ekklesia, made up of individuals who have been similarly moved by the Spirit and need to live a different way because of it.  We come together and are formed into a fellowship, a koinōnia —one of the most significant New Testament words, which describes what life is like in the ekklesia, in the church. Actually, I’m partial to the word; when I was at Princeton Seminary my friends called me Koinonia Kovacs. 

Koinōnia, fellowship, refers to what life looks like in the ekklesia.  In the koinōnia things are shared and held in common, where we mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15), where we are attentive to the needs of the people who share our lives with us (Romans 12:13).[7] We break bread and share our lives and learn to love one another—like Jesus.

            What Luke is describing here is not some kind of church program that farms out charity or takes a collection.  He’s not talking about the church as an institution—we have to stop thinking of the church as an institution (!).  He’s not talking about an organization.  What Luke is describing here—such as the sharing of possessions—is “a spontaneous outgrowth of the Spirit.”[8] It’s a natural, spontaneous response in people who are alive in the Spirit of God, in people who know that the Spirit of the Resurrected Christ is within us.

            And when this happens and every time it happens we know the grace of agalliasis.  Gladness. They broke bread and ate their food, they shared meals together, remembered the One who shared a meal with them, knowing the One who is always known to us in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:35)always, always (!) known in the breaking —and they broke bread, lived out their day-to-day ordinary lives, “with glad and generous hearts,” en agalliasis kai apheloteti kardiasAgalliasis means gladness, but gladness of a special kind. It describes the joy we find in the presence of the Lord. It’s used four other times, all in Luke’s Gospel.  It’s used more than 12 times in Greek version of the Psalms (Septuagint).  Apheloteti (from aphelotes) is used only here in the Bible and refers to simplicity, generosity.  When the Spirit moves our hearts we are changed. 

            When we’re close to the presence of the Lord there is gladness and joy in the church.  Here and now.  Not in some glorified past; not one day.  Here and now in the church.  But, remember, it’s not about the church.  It’s about you and me, individually and then together, in our experience of the Resurrected Lord—along with everyone else the Spirit adds to the koinōnia.  When the Spirit moves we find ourselves, naturally, becoming more and more generous—it’s one of the signs that the Spirit is at work within us when we become more generous—giving of ourselves in love, sharing our lives, giving, forgiving.  Being glad, being generous is not a program or an ethical ideal or a project or some goal that we wish to pursue in our lives.  It’s what happens, it's the result, it’s the outflow from an encounter with the Spirit.

Luke’s offers us here a description of what can happen (and does happen) when the Spirit breaks open the closed doors of our lives and enters into the places where we live, when the Spirit forms and transforms the center of our lives, the heart of our lives, transforms our hearts.  This is what is true.

When Christ’s love flows toward us and through us, we are changed. 

And then you’ll see your “wonders and signs” all around you. Then you’ll see what God’s love can do.

When this happens, I believe, we’ll look on, we’ll look at ourselves—with awe. And the world will look at us with awe.  Not because of us, but because of the Spirit at work in us. With awe.  Awe and gratitude—for the ongoing work of the Spirit in us, in the church, in the world.  Amen.

[1] See Rosemary Ruether, The Radical Kingdom: The Western Experience of Messianic Hope (New York: Paulist Press, 1970), especially chapter 11, “Christian-Marxist Dialogue,” 185ff.
[2]“Utopia” was first coined by Thomas More (1478-1535) for the title of his book Utopia (1516), describing a fictional island society in the Atlantic Ocean.
[3] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), 62.
[4] Plato, Critias, cited in Johnson, 62.
[5] Johnson, 62.
[7] On the dialectic between the koinonia and the ekklesia, see Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter and Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2001), 163ff.
[8] Johnson, 59.


Andy said...

I enjoyed this very much, and the fellowship which koinonia describes, I thought that could also describe the fellowship of our inner selves when our ego serves the soul/God. There is greater democracy, love, and unity within the total personality.

Kenneth Kovacs said...

Thanks, Andy. Very true. The internal koinonia informs the external koinonia.