April 12, 2015
Second Sunday of Easter
Sunday of Divine Mercy
First Reading: Acts 4:32-35
There’s a difference between a soloist and an orchestra. The solo musician stands before the audience and shows off his talents all on his own with no help. But the orchestra is full of musicians, many of whom even play the same part on the same instrument. These musicians must cooperate with one another in order to make beautiful, polyphonic music that would be impossible for one person to generate no matter how skilled. This Sunday’s first reading from the Book of Acts reminds us that the Christian life is not a solo project.
Unity in Community
The early Christian community at Jerusalem is described in Acts 4:32 as being of “one heart and one mind.” They not only went to a weekly church service together, but they loved each other in very practical, yes, financial, ways. Their unity with one another was not merely an external set of practices, but flowed from within. They were truly united in Christ with one another and out of that spiritual unity they formed a practical community. Their love for one another had real consequences in their daily life. They really lived out Jesus’ command of evangelical poverty: “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics” (Luke 9:3 RSV).
A Hundredfold Blessing
It might seem that the rich Christians were foolish and the poor ones were shrewd, the poor ones duping the rich ones into sharing their bounty freely. Yet Jesus emphasizes how whatever we give up to enter the kingdom of God will be repaid to us many times over:
Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life (Mark 10:29-30 RSV).
It would be easy to over-interpret this and say that the gospel is a great way to pump up your net worth, but that’s not what Jesus is saying. He’s showing us that in the gospel, in the Christian community, everyone counts as family. We receive new brothers and sisters and rely on each other, sharing hospitably and generously with one another. This reciprocal sharing makes it as if we owned thousands of houses and lands. The early Christians share the blessing of generosity rather intensely in Acts, modeling for us what it can be like.
The Christians in Acts 4 sell their goods and put the money at the disposal of the apostles for the welfare of the entire community. That is a radical act of trust in God, not an after-the-fact handful of change in the collection plate. To our ears, it sounds like an early form of communism or some other radical political ideology. Two considerations can help us here.
First, the early Christian community at Jerusalem was under constant threat of persecution. Many of the early Christian leaders there were martyred. It is very likely that many of the first Christians began to be excluded economically from the wider Jerusalem community because of their new faith and that many formerly solvent households were on the brink of bankruptcy. Even wealthy Christians would have been under threat. Desperate times call for desperate measures and the early Christians trust one another to be good stewards of the common purse.
Second, under these circumstances, the Apostles are entrusted with both a spiritual and temporal leadership role. They not only preach the gospel, but also oversee the distribution of financial assistance to the less fortunate members of the community. The Church here forms a social safety net in an era when Social Security, life insurance, Medicare, and welfare programs did not exist.
Witnessing by Word and Love
During this time of harmony in the Christian community at Jerusalem, the apostles bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus. They publicly proclaim him risen from the dead and tell the message of his life. Their consistent witnessing wins them some popularity even in the midst of a tense environment. The whole community offers support to their word by the witness of their love. When Christians love one another, serve one another and honor one another, the world takes notice. When Jesus taught the disciples, he insisted on no less than this:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35 RSV).
The early Christians live out this commandment of love and demonstrate this love with their pocketbooks.
The Body of Christ
Building on this idea, St. Paul likened the unity of Christians with one another to the unity of the parts of the human body. He teaches that though we have different roles, God wants “that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1Cor 12:25-26 RSV). So the Christians shared their money, shared their lives, but also shared suffering, and shared honor.
An orchestra or choir of wannabe soloists sounds awful. Nobody wants to hear selfish musicians trying to hog the limelight with their competition of virtuosity. In the same way, we don’t want to be soloist Christians, trying to impress others with our piety while essentially hoarding the gifts God has given us. Sharing is difficult and complicated, messy and often unequal, yet by pouring ourselves out for others generously, giving freely, showing hospitality, and offering ourselves as witnesses to the Love which brought the Son of God back from the grave, we prove ourselves true disciples. Love challenges us because it requires commitment, but an orchestra sounds much more beautiful than a lone violinist on a stage.