Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
April 8, 2018
Text: Acts 4:32, N.T.: Acts 4:32-35, Gospel: John 20:19-31
Private ownership. America is built on private ownership. Owning property – having a home of your own – inspired our ancestors to leave the Old World for America. They left the poverty of landless existence for the dream of owning a home. Nothing is more American than private ownership.
Few ideas could be more contrary to the American dream than intentionally giving up private ownership of a home. Today’s Scripture passage isn’t just countercultural for some of us – it’s outright un-American.
I remember first reading this passage from the Book of Acts over four decades ago. It was a passage that stimulated adult discussion that I overheard as a teenager. The complaints came fast and furious. “It’s socialism! It’s communism!”
Nothing is farther from the truth.
Socialism and communism weren’t on the global radar during the first century of the Christian Era. No, chapter four of the Book of Acts was Christian.
Godless materialism was not the Church’s agenda in Jerusalem when Acts 4 was written. Jesus’ followers sold their private property and gave the proceeds to the Church. Christ’s faithful were doing one thing and one thing only- following Jesus Christ.
The earliest Christians did not believe Jesus’ greatest trait was being an amiable philanthropist – like Thomas Paine. They did not agree with Thomas Jefferson that Jesus’ system of morality was His greatest contribution. They only partially agreed with Ben Franklin that Jesus’ humility was a virtue to be followed.
They believed Jesus’ words were God’s own Word.
How many times in the Gospel did Jesus instruct His followers to give up all they had and follow Him? Ten times Jesus instructed His followers to focus on treasures in heaven, not on earth.
- Matthew 6:19: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth . . . but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”
- Matthew 6:24, 33: “You cannot serve God and mammon . . . Seek first His kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” (Luke 16:13)
- Matthew 10:5-9: These twelve Jesus sent out charging them . . . go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying, give without pay. Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts.” (Mark 6:8-11; Luke 9:2-5; Luke 10:3-12)
- Matthew 16:24-25: Then Jesus told His disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it. Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
- (Mark 8:34-9:1; Luke 9:23-27)
Each of these instructions was taken literally by Jesus’ earliest followers. They believed He was God. We have trouble with His instructions because they’re so radical.
What was Jesus’ point? Is following His instruction necessary to be a Christian? Isn’t all we need to do is believe in Jesus Christ? What about all those preachers who say that belief in Jesus Christ is the first step to worldly success?
First, Jesus was the reason the infant church gave up ownership of this world. The pattern for faith Jesus taught included how disciples handled material wealth. Many of His followers were poor and owned very little. But others were wealthy with great possessions.
Jesus taught everyone is equally valuable in God’s sight. Personal value doesn’t come from what we own. It comes from God. Private ownership generates a value system that affects the way we interact with other people. Jesus wanted all of His followers to be humble, respect each other, and to serve one another. This is best accomplished when the temptation is removed of finding our personal value in what we own.
Second, Jesus inspired the infant church to abandon ownership of this world. His resurrection showed life beyond this life is the greatest treasure. This world pales in comparison with what lies beyond in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus inspires us to focus on the Kingdom to come. When we do, possessions aren’t of the same value for us as it is for those who believe this life is the only life to live.
Third, Jesus didn’t want His followers to depend on what they owned to live. He wanted His followers to depend upon God’s grace to live. When we live by God’s grace, each day we appreciate God providing for our needs. His grace is the only way we are to live. It’s difficult for us to depend upon God’s grace when we think we’ve earned what we need to live. There is no greater works righteousness than thinking we’re the reason for our salvation, not God’s grace.
Jesus knew it’s only when we own nothing in this world, that we depend solely on God for life. It’s only when everything is taken from us that we can see the daily blessings that God gives to His faithful.
One of the most famous illustrations of this is when Corrie TenBoome was sent to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. It was only when the Christian evangelist lost everything that she learned the value of depending solely on God.
She wrote, “I learned that lice were gifts from God.” A lice infestation of her barracks led the Germans to delay exterminating all of the women in that barracks. They didn’t want to enter the barracks. Corrie discovered in Buchenwald what she could never have learned as a Christian in the comforts of her home. She discovered the grace of Jesus Christ upon which she learned to depend.
Fourth, Jesus wanted His followers to trust one another. When they gave up their ownership and turned over their possessions to others, they had no guarantee their contribution would be redistributed fairly. What the earliest Christians showed was they trusted they would be fairly provided for by other brothers and sisters in Christ. Most of all – the Lord would see they receive what they needed.
They learned what so many modern Christians fail to learn, how to trust each other unconditionally. They gave up their possessions and discovered how to trust others within the Church to live up to Christ’s standard of love and compassion.
The strength of the early church came from each member being inspired by Jesus, depending upon God, trusting each other, and fairly caring for each other. Luke writes this trust was like being of one mind. The entire church of Jerusalem – over 5,000 Christians – was of one mind.
Imagine what that would mean for the church today. The church would be strengthened if we could recover the same inspiration, the same dependency, the same trust, and the same fairness in caring for each other, the same being of one mind about God. The eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection showed there is life beyond possessions, life beyond ownership.
Our life lies in Jesus Christ, in the power of His resurrection, and in the work of the Holy Spirit that blesses the earth with new life. Amen.