Second Sunday of Easter
08 April 2018
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Canon Simon Cowling
Acts 4. 32-35; John 20. 19 – end
When the Chancellor of the Exchequer rises to give his Budget speech (and we have not yet had a woman Chancellor) he traditionally precedes the announcement of his detailed fiscal intentions with an introductory set of paragraphs setting out the current state of the nation’s finances. These introductory paragraphs paint a picture of an economy that is either now in recovery following the complete incompetence of the previous administration, or else flourishing because of the overwhelming competence of the present administration – delete as appropriate. Either way, it is tempting to view the opening section of a Budget as nakedly political; designed to induce in the electorate a feel-good factor which is both politically helpful in itself and which – so the Chancellor devoutly hopes – will draw attention away from some of the less attractive features of the proposals he is about to set before parliament. It is easy to be cynical about such political stratagems – to dismiss them as what Tony Blair once called ‘low skulduggery’. But there is another way of looking at them. They can be viewed as an appeal to the sense of optimism and hope that is present in most human beings, however much they might disagree about the means by which such optimism and hope can be realised, and whatever their view about the particular politician who is speaking.
This is one way of viewing the short passage from the Acts of the Apostles we have heard this morning. In the early chapters of Acts, St Luke has described how the early Christians formed themselves into a movement of believers in response to the profound experience of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Luke has already told his readers that this movement was characterised by worship, instruction, fellowship, and the sharing of possessions. It is this last characteristic that Luke expands on in this morning’s reading. He offers a description of how the members of the new movement lived together as they sought to be faithful to the ministry of Jesus: 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. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. One writer has said, challengingly, of this passage that it ‘show us what resurrection practices look like in a communal context’. So in Acts chapter four we glimpse what it might mean for a community of Christians to be, as St Luke puts it, ‘of one heart and soul’. St Luke’s readers were Christians of a generation later than the events he describes and had already taken on some of the characteristics of an institutional church. Reading about that first generation of Christians must surely have induced a sense of optimism, of hope about what might still be possible for a spirit-filled church that was fully committed to the teachings of the risen Christ.
It is nearly two thousand years since Luke wrote that account of the communitarian practices of the early Christians in Jerusalem. Across the centuries the successors to those early Christians have argued about the extent to which we are called to follow the radical ideal of the sharing of possessions that Luke describes. In what amounts to an enacted example of cognitive dissonance the institutional church in the Middle Ages even embedded within itself opposing sides of the argument: think on the one hand about the austere and communal way of life embraced by St Francis of Assisi; think on the other about the conspicuous wealth and consumption of the church to which St Francis remained loyal, yet which viewed his commitment to poverty with such suspicion.
Within the institutional church such extremes have narrowed, though they have not disappeared. The greater challenge in our own times is for us as individual Christians. When reading passages such as Acts chapter four, at least in the west, it is increasingly difficult for us to imagine what communitarian living might look like. It is especially challenging for those who are fortunate enough to have the means that allow us to feel comfortably off; to be insulated from the needs of those who use the Food Banks to whose collections we generously contribute each week; to remove ourselves from the lived experience of those – not only in our cities – who are on the receiving end of casual racism; to side with those who, in advance of a royal wedding, unthinkingly describe large numbers of the homeless of Windsor as exercising a voluntary choice.
But the challenge that Luke’s optimistic account of communitarian living in the early Church poses to our own lifestyles remains because it is obstinately, resolutely, immovably there in our scripture. And the nub of the challenge is that, unlike the Ten Commandments, these particular verses of scripture do not tell us how we should behave, what we should or shouldn’t do. Rather, these verses describe for us, show to us, what it means to be shaped by the ministry of Jesus Christ. They therefore pose questions – awkward and uncomfortable questions – about the extent to which we are willing to be shaped by that ministry and to tear down all that insulates us from a life lived truly in common, one in heart and soul, with all our neighbours.