“The Good News We Live”

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Dr. Jim Somerville

4/7/2024

Acts 4:32-35

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The Good News We Live

First Baptist Richmond, April 7, 2024

Acts 4:32-35

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.

On Easter Sunday I started a new sermon series called “the Living Body of Christ,” suggested by my friend Don Flowers who wrote, “This is a series on the Easter season readings mostly from the Epistles and the Acts of the Apostles, which may be an excellent way for us to think about how the mission and message of Jesus lived on through the early church. How do they live on in us?” And then he suggested some sermon titles: “The Good News We Share,” “The Good News We Live,” “What Do Our Neighbors Say?” Etc. On Easter we looked at the Good News Peter shared with Cornelius, a Gentile, who didn’t know anything about Jesus. So, Peter shared his version of the gospel, which you can find in the tenth chapter of Acts, and which you can read in about 30 seconds.

Peter came down hard on several important points: 1) that God had anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; 2) that Jesus went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil; 3) that he became a threat to the religious and political authorities of Israel who tried to stop him by putting him to death; 4) but God wouldn’t take their no for an answer; God said yes to Jesus by raising him from the dead; 5) Peter said, “We are witnesses to these things, we saw the risen Lord, we ate and drank with him; 6) he commanded us to preach to the people and testify that he is the one who will

judge the living and the dead; and 7) everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

That’s Peter’s version of the gospel, that’s his 30-second “elevator speech” when someone says, “Tell me about Jesus.” But I wonder what yours would be? What would you tell people about Jesus if you only had 30 seconds to do it? What would be the most important part of your elevator speech? I hope you will actually take some time to think about that and perhaps even write something down. We’re trying to let the Good News of Easter sink down deep inside us and impact the way we live. That was certainly true for the early church; can it be true for us as well?

In today’s reading from the Book of Acts we get our second summary statement about how things were going in the early church. The first comes at the end of chapter two—after the Holy Spirit has come upon the believers on the Day of Pentecost, and after Peter has preached a sermon that results in the conversion of 3,000 people—Luke tells us that the believers, “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” and concludes by writing, “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

But then a crisis occurs: Peter and John are arrested for healing a crippled beggar; they come before the religious authorities and for a moment it looks as if they will be put to death just as Jesus was; but, no! They are released. They come back to the other believers rejoicing. And then Luke sums up the life of the early church once again. Only this time there’s a difference. See if you can hear it:

“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. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 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.” Did you hear it? The believers are still united in heart and mind, they are still bearing witness to the resurrection of Jesus, but in Luke’s summary of their common life there is a great emphasis on the fact that no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, that everything they owned was held in common. “There was not a needy person among them,” Luke says. So, here’s what I want you to do: tomorrow morning those of you who have lands or houses can put them up for sale and then, when you sell them, you can bring the money here to the church and lay it at the deacons’ feet so that if there’s anyone in need among us we will have plenty of money to take care of them.

I’m joking, right? I’m not really asking you to do that. That would be fiscally irresponsible. But apparently those first believers really did. Because the resurrection of Jesus changed everything for them. It turned the world upside down. The things that used to matter so much didn’t matter anymore and the things they had neglected for years became incredibly important: Bible study, fellowship, worship, prayer, spending time together in church, breaking bread together in homes, praising God with glad and generous hearts, and having the goodwill of all the people as the Lord added daily to their number. How do we get some of that? Without giving up everything we own how do we get a taste of that

kind of life?

I’m grateful to New Testament scholar Carl Holladay for pointing out that selling lands and houses and giving the proceeds to the church is not the only way in which responsible use of possessions is presented in the New Testament. At least two other possibilities are presented: 1) the complete renunciation of possessions as a prerequisite of discipleship (as in the story of the Rich Young Ruler from Luke 18, where Jesus says, ‘Sell all that you have, give the money to the poor, and then come, follow me’), and 2) the giving of alms” (which is basically what you do when you put money in the offering plate. Holladay mentions the example of the poor widow in Luke 21 who put two small coins into the temple treasury).i So, you have three options: 1) you can give alms—online or in the offering plate, 2) you can sell your possessions and share the proceeds, or 3) you can give up everything to follow Jesus. But the point remains that you should do something: the good news of Easter really should change the way you live.

In this story from Acts, what really changed was the reality of those first believers. Because Jesus had risen from the dead they didn’t have to be afraid of death anymore. As Paul says in Romans 6, “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.” It didn’t have dominion over them either. They were free in a way they had never been free before: free to live the lives God had given them without any fear of death. And that changed the way they related to their possessions. I say that because I know how it is for me: I’m trying to put money in savings now so that when I retire someday I will have enough to live on. The problem is, I don’t know how much “enough” is. So, I try to save as aggressively as I can, and if someone comes along asking for money I’m reluctant to let go of it; I’m afraid there won’t

be enough for me when I really need it.

Whatever happened for those first believers seems to have set them free from that kind of fear. And as they actually did it—as they sold lands and houses and brought the proceeds to the church—they realized that no matter what happened to them they would be OK. Because the church would take care of them! That’s what Luke is talking about when he says, “There was not a needy person among them.” If they had a need they would come to the apostles (who apparently had all this money lying at their feet) and the apostles would say, “What? You need money to pay your rent? Well, here you go!”

Now, if we actually did what those first believers did, if we sold our lands and houses and piled the money at the deacons’ feet, we would have more than enough to meet any need in the church family. But I don’t think we have to go that far. I’ve been saying this for years but I believe if we exercised option 1—if we all gave alms, and if those alms equaled only ten percent of our lands and houses—it would still be more than enough to meet the needs of the church. Now, I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking that preachers are always talking about money. But if you listen carefully maybe you can hear that I’m trying to set you free from your fear of death, and trying to set you free from your fear of not having enough, and instead of asking you to sell your lands and houses I’m asking you give a tenth of what God has given you so that there won’t be one needy person among his people.

That’s the point, that’s what was happening in the early church, and Carl Holladay says it was a fulfillment of an Old Testament idea found in Deuteronomy 15:4, which reads: “There will be no one in need among you.” But it was also the fulfillment of a Greek ideal which held that, “for friends all things are common.”ii

In my own notes I wrote the words of that familiar Spanish expression, “Mi casa es su casa,” meaning, “My house is your house.” And that’s what we would all hope for, isn’t it? The kind of fellowship where we really do know each other and love each other and have so much in common that there is nothing we would withhold from each other? I think that’s why we are sometimes a little overzealous about the membership process; it’s because we know that these people are not only going to have their names on the church rolls: they’re going to be part of the family.

But how wonderful when they really are! When we call their names in the parking lot, hug them in the hallways, pat the chair beside us in a Sunday school class; when we whisper their names in our morning prayers and take them casseroles when they’re sick; when we celebrate their victories and help them grieve their losses—that’s good! That’s family of the best kind, better than some of our own families. And that’s what the risen Lord has made us. If we belong to him, we belong to each other, and if he has given everything for us, we ought to be willing to do the same for each other.

I think about Doubting Thomas, the one whose story we always hear on the Second Sunday of Easter. It’s not really a story about being needy and not having enough, but on the other hand it is. Thomas needed faith; he didn’t have enough. And when he came back to that room where the disciples were gathered they shared their faith with him. “Thomas!” they said. “We have seen the Lord!” But Thomas said, “I don’t believe it and I won’t believe it until I put my fingers in the marks of the nails and my hand into his side.” The incredible thing to me is that the next week all the disciples were together in that same place and Thomas was with them. Even though he was a doubter, a disbeliever, they made room for him.

They took all the faith they had and put it together so there was enough for him, the one who couldn’t believe. When Jesus showed up, Thomas was there, thanks to those other disciples, and because Thomas was there he was able to see Jesus and say, “My Lord and my God.”

What kind of things will we make possible for others by simply sharing what we have, whether it’s faith, or hope, or love, or enough money to pay the rent? In God’s family there shouldn’t be a needy person among us. Our Heavenly Father has given us more than enough to share, and his only son, our Lord, has freed us forever from the fear of not having enough.

—Jim Somerville © 2024