The following sermon was preached at Germantown Mennonite Church in Philadelphia, based on Acts 4:32-35.
I hate to break it to you, but despite those verses in Acts, the church never really held all things in common.
While we read that everyone was of one mind and agreed and held all things in common, and had a warm, fuzzy, love fest together, what we didn’t read is that immediately after this, everything fell apart.
After the church held everything in common in Acts 4, we learn in Acts 5 that Ananias and Sapphira sold land, and gave most of the proceeds to the church. When Ananias presented this donation to Peter, the leader of the church, saying that he had given the full price of the land to the church, Peter replied, “Why is Satan filling your heart and causing you to lie, not only to the community, but to God?” And Ananias died on the spot.
A few hours later, Sapphira arrived, unaware of what happened between Peter and Ananias. Peter asked her the price of the land they had sold, and Sapphira also lied. She also fell dead.
For too long, we’ve held onto this myth that the early church got it right — that the church was a big bundle of love and perfection, that the church was perfect in its idealism. But it didn’t happen like that. What happened was that as soon as there was a “happy ending,” the happy ending was destroyed by dishonesty and violence from within the community.
But since this fleeting moment when we as the church held all things in common, we’ve been looking back at this day as “the good old days.”
When I was a kid, I remember my grandparents talking about the good old days when kids could run around unencumbered, and didn’t have to worry about drugs and violence and child abductors. It was back in the good old days when gender roles were more clear, and there was always a parent at home. It was back in the good old days when the church was the center of community life and had much more power over culture and morality. It was back in the good old days that this was a godly nation, a Christian nation, and we operated under Biblical mandates.
The good old days was also when crime was much higher, we had no protections for children and women who were sexually assaulted. The good old days was when the church perpetuated violence in it’s systems and excluded women and queer folks from access. The good old days was a time that folks felt less able to live the lives they were called to live because society couldn’t handle it. People of color could be publicly hanged in the good old days and white folks would celebrate it with pictures and a party. The good old days was a time when this “godly nation” was more intolerant towards our Muslim and Jewish friends than we already are.
Yeah, those were the good old days. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to go back to that. Things are far from perfect now, and we’ve created as many problems as we’ve solved, but I’m glad that we are living in a culture that is working to widen the welcome — slowly but surely — for folks of all races, classes, cultures, religious beliefs, genders and sexual orientation. We humans have a way of looking back on things with rose-colored glasses. We remember our own innocence at the time, saying — ”we were poor but happy” or “I wish we could go back to the life we lived then.”
In the same way, the church has always looked back at Acts 4 as this perfect time when things were as they should be in the church. When we held all things in common. When we were the church God asked us to be.
We look at the church then, and turn to look at the church now, and all we can do is shake our heads. But the church is and was made up of the people in it. We share the same struggles that exist in our world, because we live in the world. We share the same fears and concerns of the world, because we are members of the human race. And our general fear, as humans, is to worry that there is not enough. That is a condition that has existed long before Ananias and Sapphira. In fact, it went back to the garden of Eden.
My dad grew up poor — really poor. Born at the tail end of World War II, he remembers, as the oldest of eight kids, that money was scarce. He remembers when his mother got creative with food to get them through. So, when I was growing up, it felt like we lived like we were still in the post-war era. We always had enough, but we were always told by my dad that we were broke.
Dad was always trying to save a buck. I remember his frustration when we’d leave a light on in our room when we were not in there. He would get so mad at me that he’d take away my light bulb for a couple of days. He had to teach us to save money, because there might not be enough.
As an adult, I find myself — like my dad — concerned about not having enough. But we always do. I may not have all that I want, but I always have much more than I need.
This good old days idea of the perfect church where everyone held everything in common — well it didn’t happen. It’s just that simple. It never happened. But it doesn’t mean that we don’t own that vision and idealism of the early church.
Broad Street Ministry is a church in downtown Philadelphia that looks very much like the early church would have. It’s a mix of folks that are middle class, educated and poor and homeless. A few years ago, they expressed theology of abundance. It was beautiful. In their weekly suppers together, the tables would be extravagantly full of plenty. What they found was that this extravagance was stressful. People began to hoard food, worried that they might need it for later. What the church was trying to express about their lives together was sending the wrong message.
So they changed their language from one of extravagance to one of enough. And everyone at every meal gets enough. And folks are able to relax into enough, with less fear of scarcity.
The Acts text is trying to get to that idea, not of extravagance, but of enough. Enough for today. Enough to live. Enough for everyone.
That happened for a fleeting moment in the early church, and we have been longing to get back to that ever since. But we need to be careful not to glamorize that moment in the church. We see pretty clearly in the Ananias and Sapphira story that it was not at all glamorous. It was a difficult time for the church when everything was upside down.
There’s a reason this text comes right after we celebrate Easter. We glamorize Easter as this perfect time when all was made right, but it was also a terrible time of upheaval. It was upheaval that made thing new, but also made things difficult and uncertain.
Holding all things in common sounds like heaven, but it also sounds terrifying. It means everything changes. Our sense of what is ours changes. Our sense of what is enough changes. We are no longer thinking about creating a safe environment for ourselves but for our whole community. This Easter-like experience of newness, is also fraught with difficult questions, uncertainty and upheaval.
But it doesn’t mean we don’t try to live into this resurrection moment. It doesn’t mean that we don’t testify to what we know in our words and deeds.
And it definitely doesn’t mean that we try to get back to the good old days. In the same way that we don’t try to get back to the resurrection. Neither community or resurrection are things that happen in the past; they are things that are right in front of us, just out of our grasp. They are our future, and our hope.
St. Augustine said this: “Hope has two beautiful daughters: their names are anger and courage. Anger that things are the way they are, and courage to make them the way they ought to be.”
We can’t go back to the good old days, because they never existed in the first place. But we can live forward into the resurrection, by testifying with our words and actions the gospel of fear not, the hope of enough. We can live into the resurrection by facing our fear of scarcity. We can be God’s resurrection people, by allowing our anger at injustice to motivate the way we relate to each other and to our possessions.
Amy Yoder McGloughlin is pastor of Germantown Mennonite Church in Philadelphia. This is a sermon she gave based on Acts 4:32-35, first posted on storiesfromtheredtent.com.