Great Grace

A Sermon preached by the
Rev. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, April 8, 2018

Text: Acts 4:32-35

Long ago and far away – well 45 years ago in Berkeley, anyway – I lived in a kind of commune. 10 or 12 of us, all connected through the Graduate Theological Union and its member schools, lived in a large, three-story house on Hearst Street, directly across from the residence of the president of the University of California. The house was owned by two of the women who lived there who were the beneficiaries of wealthy families. I’m not sure how tight-knit a community it was compared to other communes of which I’ve heard, but we had house meetings, house rules, some shared meals, some shared activities, and common concern for things theological. There was diversity in background, life-style, interest, and theological thinking, but we were all white, middle and upper middle class young adults – clearly people of privilege. It didn’t cost us much to live in this sort of community.

As I recall, I spent an engaging and enjoyable year or so at Hearst House. It was a God-send for me while I struggled to make sense of my life and to make ends meet as I dealt with coming out and what that meant for me in terms of career. I remember I was working the night shift at Piedmont Gardens Retirement Center in Oakland and studying music at Cal State Hayward that year. Living collectively in Hearst House was both respite and stimulation for me. I needed very much to be part of a community that would both support and challenge me at that point in my life.

Though there was a lot of common concern and care in that big old house on Holy Hill, I doubt that we were ever completely of “one heart and soul.” Nor did we forego “ownership of any possessions” nor hold everything in common. I don’t remember all our conversations, but I can’t remember collectively doing an in-depth exegesis of this passage from Acts. I suppose it makes sense to say that some awareness of what community meant in the early church informed the decision to start that house and sustained it over its several years of existence as a communal living arrangement. As I said I was only there for about a year before I fell in love and moved into our own place with my new partner.

The preferred text for today is John’s gospel account of “doubting” Thomas and Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. But we have covered that ground on more than one occasion. This time around these few verses from Luke’s Acts of the Apostles caught my attention. Maybe it was because community has become such an important concept in my own thinking and living. To begin with, I have come to believe that “God’s Beloved Community” is the best way to name what Jesus had come to proclaim. Terms like kingdom, realm, reign, even commonwealth don’t work for me anymore. I find them both dated and misrepresentative of what Jesus’ life and ministry was all about.

You see, I believe he came to help us understand that God made us for community and then to show us what that community looks like. If God is love, as we like to claim, then God is inherently relational. Love connects and unites. Love creates community. Luke says of those early Christians, “…those who believed were of one heart and soul…” and that “…great grace was upon them all.” It sounds to me as if those earliest Christians, filled with resurrection fervor and pentecostal power, recognized that they were being woven together in unity and love. They had, at least for that brief, shining moment, a real grasp of what is meant, of what Jesus meant, by God’s Beloved Community.

Now it’s probably true that this Jerusalem Commune didn’t last very long. Human limitation – in the form of weakness, insecurity, envy, greed, desire, apathy, impatience – reared its ugly head. The vision began to dim and the community crumble. If only Jesus would come back soon, then everything would be alright. We can’t really keep this up without him. It makes me think of Peter who was able to step out of the boat and walk on the storm-tossed sea toward Jesus until his faith faltered and he began to sink.

We struggle with passages like these verses from Acts because they seem so unrealistic, utopian. Sure, it’s a lovely idea. We may even be touched by Luke’s description of the first church, but let’s get real. We all know about the failure of Communism. This may have worked for them, but they were a different order of people, biblical characters. We’re just human beings here, doing the best we can.

Still, could it be that God is calling us, Jesus is leading us, the spirit is empowering us to something more? Could one aspect of realizing God’s Beloved Community actually be that there not be a “needy person” among us? Could it be that Jesus really meant for his followers to care for the least, the outcast, the marginalized? Could the Beloved Community be tasked with setting a table large enough to seat everyone who would come to the feast, regardless of status? In this week in which we remembered the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., we hear again his words, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” Are we up for such a challenge?

Here we are at the beginning of Eastertide. The great good news of Jesus’ resurrection remains fresh in our memory; alleluias and amens still ring in our ears. In today’s Words of Preparation, Martin Niemoller writes of this season, “Easter is not a part of the old accustomed divine order, or of the ordered world in which we live, but it is an absolutely new, unexpected act of the living God, which interrupts and runs counter to the uniform rise and fall of the world’s rhythm. Here we have the beginning of something new.”

Are we ready, willing, and able to take the risk – to embrace the “absolutely new, unexpected act of the living God”? That’s what those first Christians did. United in “one heart and soul…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 Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them.” In commenting on today’s text, John Holbert believes that “…one of the very first results of Easter day is that God is shown to be especially concerned about the needy, and equally concerned about those of us who have no such concern. Communism, socialism, capitalism are not finally the problem; are there needy among you? That is the problem” (John C. Holbert, “Holding All Things in Common: Reflections on Acts 4:32-35,” April 8, 2012, patheos.com). Is that a problem for us, problem enough to move to work for the building up of God’s Beloved Community in which none is needy?

Luke says of those first Christians, “Great grace was upon them all.” What a lovely image! The members of that first congregation were graced and gracious in their efforts to live out God’s Beloved Community right there in the midst of old Jerusalem. “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed!”

Charlie asked about this business of grace Tuesday in Bible study. It is a term we probably toss about too easily. If you stop to ponder grace, you might find it difficult to comprehend. I think what may be most difficult to grasp is that grace is a gift, pure and simple. “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound…” But really! Grace for me? Grace for the church? Grace for the world? There’s too much to be cleaned up before we could ever let grace into our lives, our communities, our environment? It’s easier to sing “Would he devote that sacred head for sinners such as I?” than to wrap our minds around the depths of the notion that “God so loved the world…,” the whole wide world and everything in it. Yet, that’s exactly why God, in Christ, is reconciling all of creation to God’s self. Love. Love, graciously given, a precious gift, no strings attached. All we have to do is accept it.

And there’s the rub. We have to accept the gift for it to take effect. We have to say “yes, thank you” for the gift to become real. Look at that early church. Great grace was among them. They recognized it; they embraced it; they lived it. F. Scott Spencer writes that “The resurrection forges new communities of light and life. Only in such fellowship (koinonia) is the meaning of the resurrection progressively discerned and demonstrated, learned and lived out” (F. Scott Spencer, “Commentary on Acts 4:32-35, April 19, 2009,” workingpreacher.org). That’s what those first Christians in Jerusalem were doing, living out the meaning of the Resurrection.

In last week’s sermon I talked about living the resurrection, about the “resurrected life.” A friend commented, “…if I could live a resurrected life for the rest of my life that would be beyond anything I could dream up that I “want”. I would love that– to stay in that resurrected life at all times. Any recipes how to do that?????” A fair and challenging question. How do we manifest God’s Beloved Community? How do we share one heart and soul and share things in common? How do we stay in the resurrected life?

I responded, maybe too glibly, “I’m not sure about recipes, but here’s the secret to success – practice. You know the old joke about ‘How do you get to Carnegie Hall?’ ‘You practice!’ The gospel of Mark is pretty clear about what we need to practice. First and foremost, it’s love for God and love for neighbor. It’s compassion. It’s healing the sick, it’s feeding hungry, it’s caring for the poor and disenfranchised, it’s working for peace, the well-being of ourselves, others and the planet. And none of this because they are onerous responsibilities, but all in the joy of being raised up in Christ. (The first souffle I made fell, btw.)”

What might inspire, empower us to take up the challenge of those congregants in the first century church? The realization that we are embedded in great grace. There is nothing onerous about living in God’s Beloved Community, in uniting in one heart and soul, in letting go of possessions and holding things in common, in ensuring that there are no needy among us. All this and more is born of our Easter joy in “being raised up in Christ.” How do you live the resurrected life? How to you build up God’s Beloved Community? Practice – not because it’s a necessary task demanded of you by a stern and distant father-god, but because Love’s great grace gives us joy and fulfillment in learning to live it out, day by day. Amen.

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