April 12, 2015 1 John 1: 1-2: 2 Acts 4: 32-37
Rev. Catherine Purves
We’re all supposed to learn how to share in Kindergarten, and perhaps we do. But somewhere along the line after that, many of us forget that lesson. Sharing does not seem to come naturally. On the contrary, greed and self-centeredness are more natural to our human temperament. That makes the story about the generosity of the first Christian converts quite remarkable. Their willingness to share everything and their concern for one another’s needs has a real Easter aura about it. Soon, that initial zeal and the glow of uncalculated generosity would fade. But the ideal of Christian sharing is still something that we can aspire to, if we recognize ourselves as Easter people, post-resurrection followers of Christ.
Easter people are meant to be different. That’s because Easter genuinely changed everything. If we really allow our lives to be transformed by the Easter event then we should be new people after Easter, and we should be out of step with those who haven’t experienced that new Easter reality. The resurrection was not just something that happened to Jesus. After Easter, all those who came to believe in Jesus as the resurrected Lord were called to live changed lives, ‘resurrected’ lives, you might say. Both of our readings for this morning try to describe what that surprising new life looked like, and it is as counter-cultural today as it was then.
John in his first letter talks about what it was like to be an eyewitness to the resurrection and how that created a new understanding of what it meant to be part of a community of the resurrection, the church. He uses the powerful New Testament word, “fellowship” – koinonia in Greek. The word fellowship has lost some of its strength because we have come to associate it with coffee hours and fellowship dinners. But the word really implies an intimacy and an unbreakable bond that we would more readily associate with marriage.
In our reading from Acts, Luke writes that these new Christians “were of one heart and soul.” That sounds like something we might say about a married couple. And then he goes on to say that, “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” Apparently, there were no prenuptial agreements when you joined the Easter fellowship of the church. And so that there would be no doubt about that, Luke gives us an example. Joseph (later re-named Barnabas) sold a field and then brought all the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. This Easter fellowship involved a whole lot more than coffee hours.
Going back to John’s first letter, we see that he uses that word, koinonia or fellowship, to describe every aspect of the Easter life that was shared. It was the truth about the resurrected Christ that created this deep and demanding fellowship among believers. When that truth was received and celebrated, believers found that they also had a new fellowship with the Father and with the resurrected Jesus. In all of these crucial koinonia relationships there is sharing and there is sacrifice. Establishing a genuine fellowship is costly – whether that means the Father giving his Son, or the Son giving his life, or the new Christian giving his land. Sharing is what it’s all about.
Easter sharing which grows out of our relationship with the resurrected Jesus is very different from the kind of sharing that we supposedly learned about in Kindergarten. That sort of minimalist sharing assumes that if you have a handful of crayons you could maybe share one or two with a friend, or if you are building a house out of blocks you might allow someone else to use some of the blocks to build his own house. The way we think, and therefore the way we try to teach kindergartners to think, is that if we have an abundance of something, then we could share some of what we have.
This is not the kind of Easter sharing that John and Luke are writing about. If you read a little further in the book of Acts you will find an example of calculating Kindergarten-type sharing in the story of Ananias and Sapphira (it’s in chapter 5 if you want to read it later). Ananias and Sapphira also sold a piece of property, but they decided to hold back some of the proceeds, while pretending to give everything to the apostles, as Joseph (a.k.a. Barnabas) actually did. Their deception was a denial of the spirit of the Easter fellowship, and it sealed their fate. Those apostles didn’t mess around!
But where does that leave us? The Easter aura has largely worn off of our life in the church, and a Kindergarten perspective on sharing has generally been adopted. What should we do? The Bible really isn’t as blindly optimistic or as unforgiving as you might fear. In fact, the Bible is honest enough to admit that there were people like Ananias and Sapphira in the early church. And John is blunt enough in his assessment when he says that, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” However, neither John nor Luke is ready to lower the bar on the Easter fellowship to make it less sacrificial or demanding, even though both recognize that we will fall short of that spirit of ultimate sharing that Jesus embodied on the cross.
But, because of the cross and what God has done for us, we can have a new fellowship with the Father and with Jesus, and that fellowship will overflow in the rest of our lives as grace, which will increase our Easter fellowship with one another. In describing the community of the first Christians, Luke says, “great grace was upon them all.” Everything depends on grace and the free gift of forgiveness and the new life that is then given in Jesus Christ.
“My little children,” John writes. Notice the tenderness and love he feels for those in the Easter fellowship. “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” He calls those who are in the Easter fellowship to walk in the light and not in the darkness, and to be that Easter community that reflects the goodness and the generosity of God. This involves a sharing and a compassion that seems beyond our reach, and yet we are called to aspire to it as Easter people, relying upon God’s grace and forgiveness. This, of course, will put us out of step with the rest of the world that judges the Easter fellowship described by John and Luke as unrealistic and, probably, impossible.
Given human nature and given our Kindergarten training, you also may think that this koinonia Easter fellowship is unrealistic and practically impossible. But then, the resurrection is also judged by the world to be unrealistic and impossible. If we claim to believe in the resurrection then the consequence of the resurrection, the new Easter fellowship, cannot be totally unrealistic or impossible. Our fellowship with the risen Christ and with the Father makes our Easter fellowship with one another both real and possible. So, then, why is the experience of koinonia in the church so elusive?
John wrote, “we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” Then he said, “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” That last line is absolutely vital. If you don’t see and experience that joy, the Easter fellowship may well sound like a sacrificial community with impossibly high standards. But that is not how koinonia fellowship works. Go back to what Luke said about the whole group being of one heart and soul. Remember, that made the Christian fellowship sound more like a marriage; and what is marriage if not a celebration of love and joy. So, we see that the essence of the Easter fellowship was actually joy, shared joy in the resurrection and in our fellowship with the Father and with Jesus. It was joy that fueled the radical sharing of the first Christians. They didn’t give up their possessions because they had to, but because they had found something infinitely more valuable than possessions and they were overjoyed.
Perhaps what is missing in the modern church is not a more inspired view of sharing, or a forced communitarian commitment, or even a stronger will to resist sin. Perhaps what is missing is simply the joy of believing in the resurrected Jesus, of knowing him, and of being in fellowship with him. Joy is a spiritual gift that we can pray for and receive. Joy is what inspired that true koinonia sharing in the Easter community. With all of the complaints and concerns that we may have about the modern church and its lack of true community and deep sharing, maybe the answer is surprisingly simple. Maybe we are just not joyful enough to really share our lives and our faith with one another in such a radical way. What do you think? Is your Easter joy a one-day-a-year phenomenon? That gives us all something to think about on this second Sunday in the Easter season.