April 27, 2014
Second Sunday of Easter
First Reading: Acts 2:42-47
During the Easter season, the Lectionary avoids the Old Testament and sticks with the Book of Acts to supply the First Reading. The idea is to concentrate on the fulfillment of the Old Testament in the New. The life of the early Church, as portrayed by Acts, reveals what a post-resurrection life can and should look like. The particular passage chosen for the Second Sunday of Easter briefly sums up the life of the early disciples from the day of Pentecost onward.
This passage, Acts 2:42-47, falls right after St. Peter’s Pentecost speech. The Holy Spirit has come upon the apostles, then Peter preaches to the crowds in Jerusalem, after which 3,000 people are baptized into the faith. After this event, our author, St. Luke, offers us a window into the life of the first Christians. The Lectionary gives us a sneak preview of the resurrection results of the first apostolic ministry, but then will go on to fill in the back story by presenting snippets of Peter’s speech over the next two Sundays.
The Essence of Community
St. Luke tells us that the first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42 RSV). These four elements, which might seem like a bare list, actually frame the essentials of the Christian life. The “apostles’ teaching” consists of the Gospel message and Christian doctrine. We can hear their lessons in the Bible and in the teaching of the Church. “The fellowship” or koinonia (in Greek) indicates the loving communion that believers have with one another. This fellowship is not mere camaraderie or some sort of club, but rather it indicates the kind of unity for which Jesus prayed, “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee” (John 17:21 RSV). This kind of heart-to-heart fellowship takes time, which is why Luke tells us that the Christians devoted themselves to it. They devoted their time to loving one another.
In addition, the first Christians frequently participated in “the breaking of the bread,” not a mere meal, but a Eucharistic celebration, the first Masses ever said. Lastly, the disciples take part in “the prayers.” Oddly, the text does not say that they simply prayed, but that they used “the prayers.” Since they were gathering together daily in the Temple, some scholars have suggested that “the prayers” refers to the psalms, songs, and prayers offered to the Lord at the Temple. In our day, we can engage in these kinds of “prayers” in the Liturgy of the Hours, the Rosary and other kinds of prayers the Church provides. The four things to which the disciples devoted themselves, teaching, fellowship, Eucharist, and prayers, are the building blocks of the kind of life that Christians can and should live in light of Jesus’ Resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
However, the first Christians go beyond merely developing a habit of prayer. The embrace a radical form of discipleship in which members hold all goods in common. This is not political communism in a modern sense, but real Christian community in an ancient one; there’s a difference. The early Christians band together in this radical form of community as an expression of their love for Christ, their koinonia with one another, and as a witness to the wider culture. This communal possession of goods demonstrates that in Christ being “rich in good deeds” is far more important than being rich in worldly wealth. While Acts tells us about the Jerusalem Christians embracing this kind of radical community life, we don’t have information about how intensely the other early Christian communities lived out their fellowship. In addition to holding goods in common, the early Christians prayed together daily.
While not all of us can enter into a radical community, the early disciples’ example shows us how much Christ should transform our lives. They lived out their faith in strong distinction to the wider culture. They showed their enthusiastic embrace of Christ’s call by banding together in a loving community. While our particular instantiations of Christian community may differ in form from that first Jerusalem group, they can display the same spirit of commitment to Jesus.
Signs and Wonders
Not only do the disciples live a radical community life, they also perform wonders and signs which inspire awe and faith in others. They truly “do the works that I do” (John 14:12). The healings, signs, and miracles that the apostles perform remind us of the signs which Moses and Aaron performed by God’s power for the Exodus generation. These signs are not ends in themselves, but help people lift their minds to God, to recognize the Lordship of his Son and to enter into the mystery of his resurrection life. Notice too, that the signs are performed “through” the apostles by God. He is the focus, not the miracle-working in itself.
The faith, prayer, and community of the early Christians causes their hearts to overflow with joy. Besides being filled with awe, their hearts are brimming with “exaltation and sincerity” (Acts 2:46 NAB). Their fear of death has been vanquished by the power of the cross and resurrection. They respond with deep emotion to the fact that God is in their midst. Their love of him and one another brings unity, healing, and wholeness. The early disciples’ loving koinonia and exultant hearts open to receive new members. Who wouldn’t want to join them? Their radiant love and joy attract others and they become an evangelistic community to which new members are regularly added.
This idealistic portrait of early Christian community gives us something to shoot for. It shows what Christian community can be like when we let God take control. It’s important to remember that this is an idyllic picture. The early church was not without its problems: persecution, heresy, arguments, immorality, among others. However, here the focus is not on the shortcomings of the community, but the joy, which the Lord offers us in it. This is what redeemed, hope-filled, joyful living looks like. It is not a fear- and worry-based kind of living, but an exultant lifestyle that rejoices in the salvation achieved in Christ. The forgiven are in a continual state of thanks!