Uniform Lesson for November 22, 2020
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Acts 4:32-37
If last week’s lesson glossed over divisions within congregations with its talk of love and abiding, this week’s lesson declares, from the beginning, that such divisions were nonexistent. What church is this? Have you ever been in a congregation that meets this description? And then it gets even more amazing (and disturbing!): “And no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” Is this legal? Is this American? I thought this series was about “Godly love among believers,” and now we’re talking about the abolition of private property! How did we get from there to here, from the “communities of the beloved disciple” to the “communitarianism” of the early church?
Acts 4:32-33 — The acts of the Holy Spirit
While Acts is formally known as The Acts of the Apostles, many argue that it should be designated The Acts of the Holy Spirit. This account of the life of the early church (flowing directly from similar acts in the Gospel of Luke) is full of signs and wonders: the dead being raised, the sick healed and prison walls tumbling down. It leads off with the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, when all the nations of the world hear about God’s deeds of power in their own languages (Acts 2:11). In our passage, the apostles give their testimony regarding the resurrection “with great power” producing “great grace … upon them all.” This is a book of the Holy Spirit, who acts in individual and corporate ways, forming a new community of believers from all the nations of the world.
And so, we must lead off by observing that this is a story of incredible events fueled by very ordinary means, mostly verbal, of testimony and speaking. This is the way the Holy Spirit worked then, and this is the way the Holy Spirit desires to work now: by one human being and one human community speaking to another, with the trust that their words are inspired or full of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit can raise the dead, heal the sick, give strength to the dispirited, cause revolutions in the body politic and make all the world into a beloved community. That we do not immediately recognize the fruit of such powerful grace may have less to do with transmission than with reception.
Acts 4:34-35 — There was not a needy person among them
This one verse should take our breath away (and maybe fill it with the breath of the Holy Spirit!). We have talked repeatedly in our lessons this fall regarding the nature of biblical love. It must be love in action; it has to include tangible responses; it has to be communal as well as individual. Now, Acts 4 pushes us to another level. At the heart of biblical love is the act of letting go — letting go of love of self in order to be caught up in love of God and neighbor. If that does not transform our finances as well as our feelings, then it is inauthentic and false. While the phrase “from each according to one’s ability, to each according to one’s needs,” is attributed to Karl Marx, it seems to flow fairly easily from the Holy Spirit in Acts 4. The gross disparity in wealth within the church today (locally and worldwide) is a scandal we cannot avoid. While we may disagree regarding solutions, we cannot avoid the challenge. Are we praying and acting to be a community of the Holy Spirit, or not?
Acts 4:36-37 — True love, true faith
I’m always struck by the fact that when we encounter something particularly problematic for us in Scripture, we ask: “Did that ever happen?” This question is raised inevitably when we encounter the jubilee year in the Old Testament (Leviticus 25), and it occurs every time I’ve ever led a Bible study on this passage. My response is quite simple: Why are we so eager to ask this question about the Holy Spirit’s revolution but not about Jesus Christ’s resurrection? If our faith might be in vain regarding one (1 Corinthians 15:14), how about the other? Yes, there is immediate evidence that this kind of love was hard from the beginning (read Acts 5). But aren’t true love and true faith supposed to be hard?
For discussion: We, as Christians, love to witness to the good news of resurrection. But how do we feel about resonate to the revolution that this resurrection requires? People on top don’t often want the world turned upside down. Where do we fit into this act of the Holy Spirit?
RICHARD BOYCE is the dean of the Charlotte campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary, and associate professor of preaching and pastoral leadership. He is a minister member of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina.
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