A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, May 7, 2017
Text: Acts 2:42-47
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day 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, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
I imagine that most of us would agree that this is not the best of times. Is it the worst of times? I can’t say for certain. There are many things within the current social and political scenes that feel pretty awful, about as bad as we can remember. The problem with judging this as the worst of times is that we lose sight of some terrible times that have gone before.
For instance, I have been reading Ron Chernow’s great biography of Alexander Hamilton. Interestingly, it is the work on which the contemporary hit musical is based. Let me tell you, the book is an excellent historical account of a key figure in the founding of this country, but it seems a highly unlikely source for a musical. I haven’t seen the musical, so I can only give credit to Lin Manuel Miranda’s genius from afar, for it must take genius to make music of such an account of a most challenging time in US history.
The political infighting in the late 18th century between the Federalists and the Republicans was fierce. Each side believed the success of the new nation was totally dependent on its point of view and each feared the other was selling out America’s new-found independence. The Republicans believed the Federalists were a front for the British monarchy and the Federalists saw the Republicans as tools of the chaos and bloodshed of the French Revolution. This was the beginning of party politics, and if you think today’s news conferences – fake or otherwise, tweets, leaks, hacks, and other political chicanery are bad, you should read about the terrors of politics in the 1790s. The diatribes, name-calling, mud-slinging, etc., was vicious and offered up under pseudonyms that purported to keep the authors anonymous. Libelous commentary and threats to honor were still settled with duels, one of which took Hamilton’s life. As I said, I can’t affirm with any certainty that this earlier time was worse than the present but it was surely not good.
This week we have seen the President abruptly end an interview with a respected journalist in a childish pique because he didn’t like the questions that challenged unsubstantiated claims he had made about his predecessor. We watched as he signed an executive order undermining religious liberty. Amanda Tyler of the Baptist Joint Committee of Religious Liberty writes, “The vast majority of congregants and clergy from all religious groups oppose candidate endorsements in their houses of worship. Pastors will continue to speak truth to power and preach on moral issues, no matter how controversial, and they don’t need a change in the tax law to do it. But getting rid of the protection in the law that insulates 501(c)(3) organizations from candidates pressing for endorsements would destroy our congregations and charities from within over disagreements on partisan campaigns.”
For me, the most egregious event of the week was the passage in the House of Representatives of a health care bill that promises more harm than health for the many Americans. I was especially impressed with these comments by Massachusetts Congressman, Joe Kennedy. They seem intricately entwined with today’s text. He observes:
“It is among the most basic human truths: Every one of us, someday, will be brought to our knees. By a diagnosis we didn’t expect, a phone call we can’t imagine, or a loss we cannot endure.
That common humanity inspires our mercy. It fortifies our compassion. It drives us to look out for the sick, the elderly, the poor, and the most vulnerable among us.
Yesterday’s bill — yesterday’s devastating bill — does the opposite.
The bill is more than premiums and tax cuts. It is a cold and calculated world view: One that scapegoats the struggling, and sees fault in suffering. One dead set on dividing us based on who we love, where we come from, the direction of our faith and the size of our fortunes.
We must reject it.
We must decide, instead, to take care of each other — because, but for the grace of God, we will all one day wake up in need of a little mercy.
This nation’s character has never been defined by the power we give the already strong — but by the strength we give the weak.”
Is Kennedy right? Do we believe we are part of a “common humanity”? Has our national character overall been defined by the “strength we give the weak”? Would God it were so. It certainly sounds like gospel truth to me. I am not sure that it has ever been consistently American truth. But it does seem like Kennedy has caught some of the vision of that first community of Christ-followers in Jerusalem, what some refer to as the first church. In Luke’s, perhaps overly idealized, summary of what that community was like, the strength given to the weak was crucial – “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
It’s easy to look at this passage from Acts and read “communism” between the lines in big red letters. That’s what happened in Bible Study on Tuesday. Because of the great Cold War waged between American capitalism and state communism, it is still a dirty word in the vernacular, and this text raises old specters for those who remember. In his sermon, “A Vibrant Communism,” Australian Bruce Prewer begins by saying “Given the fears, suffering and massacres caused by the Marxist/Leninist/Maoist/Pol-Pot brands of political communism during the twentieth century, the word communism has been corrupted. Maybe irredeemable? Can I even dare use the word ‘communism’ without raising barriers and arousing hostility in many people? I guess I’ll know, by the feedback, after this sermon.”
Rather than focus on the worst of times, I would rather attend to the good news in today’s text. It is actually a favorite of mine. Even if Luke is embellishing what really happened among those first followers, this still seems to me to be a fitting account of the Jesus way. First and foremost, it says the early disciples “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” In other, words, they grounded their lives individually and communally in spiritual discipline. I know you’ve heard me say before that this sort of spiritual practice is vital to understanding and living out the gospel.
Then, because they engaged in this spiritual discipline, they were not only able to do “signs’ and wonders,” as Jesus had, they were able – at least for a while – to sustain a community in which they shared, not only their possession, but their lives. They could live communally, praying, breaking bread and eating together with “glad and generous hearts.” Isn’t that a wonderful way to describe a community – one that is characterized not only by giving strength to the weak but also by living their lives with glad and generous hearts? Maybe, in these troubled times, especially in these troubled times, we, as people of faith, as followers of Christ, ought to work at cultivating glad and generous hearts. I don’t mean we should stick our heads in the sand while the world crumbles around us. It is always appropriate to speak truth to power. But listen to the result of those first Christians living with glad and generous hearts. They experienced the “goodwill of all the people. And day by day God added to their number those who were being saved.” There was actually something salvific in their witness, something infectious in the spirit of joy and generosity with which they approached life.
Prewer, looking back at this first community, ends his sermon suggesting to his contemporary congregation, “Such idealistic communism would be truly a bit of heaven on earth. Those first Christians bravely and lovingly practiced it in Jerusalem. Think of the witness that such a caring and sharing way of life must have had on the community around them. Folk would really sit up and take notice. No wonder new converts were being baptized every day.”
Though holding all things in common, selling our possessions and goods and distributing the proceeds to those in need, may be a vision of God’s Beloved Community for which we are not yet prepared, we can still live our lives caring and sharing, building up our common humanity, giving strength to the weak, inspiring mercy, fortifying compassion, and looking out for the sick, the elderly, the poor, and the most vulnerable among us. And very importantly, because we have been loved, cared for, and blessed, we might live our lives, even in tough times, with glad and generous hearts. What do you think? Shall we give it a try? Amen.