Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Sermon: Biblical friendship values

Sermon for Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

The second Sunday of Easter; April 15, 2012

Acts of the Apostles 4:32-35

In an Easter opinion piece in the Herald-Sun Anglican Archbishop Philip Freier, after talking about migrants and asylum seekers, the Occupy Movement and politicians, wrote: ‘I invite Australia’s business and parliamentary leaders to reflect on how wealth shared equitably can be used for the betterment of the whole community, and to improve the lives and opportunities of all Australians.’ Of course, the Archbishop was criticized for this. In an opinion piece in The Age Peter Costello responded: ‘When the church speaks of its unique message – the life, death and resurrection of Christ – it draws on centuries of Christian thought and theology. I doubt Christendom has done nearly as much work on the taxation of mining profits and modern banking policies.’ Mr. Costello is probably right. I imagine that most of Christendom didn’t spend much time thinking about the best way to share the wealth; when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire the church became very wealthy and Christians began to use allegorical readings of Biblical passages like ‘Go sell everything you have and give the money to the poor’ rather than considering them literally. But as today’s passage from the Acts of the Apostles reminds us, the early church was in fact very serious about wealth being shared equitably.

Throughout the Acts of the Apostles, Luke’s sequel to his version of Gospel, the author will occasionally step away from the immediate action and provide a summary statement. Today’s passage is one of those summary statements. Peter and John have been arrested after healing a man lame from birth and preaching in the Temple. Brought before Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family, Peter and John defend their faith and Luke tells us that: ‘Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus.’ They let them go, and Peter and John return to the other apostles.

It is after this that Luke gives the summary we heard today, and it seems that his main purpose is demonstrating the authority of the apostles, in contrast with the lack of authority of Annas the high priest and his colleagues. Luke tells us that: ‘With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all’ and that those members of the community who sold their possessions laid the proceeds at the apostles’ feet for the apostles to distribute. This is Luke writing, so of course one of the signs of the apostles’ authority is their power over the use and distribution of possessions. We know from the gospel that Luke wrote that he was profoundly concerned about the right use of wealth; it is in the Gospel according to Luke that the beatitudes are paired with woes, including ‘But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.’ Luke writes this summary to show that at the centre of the life of the Christian community are the apostles, and their leadership is recognised most graphically in the wealth laid at their feet by other disciples.

Luke’s other point in this summary is to show that this small, new group is in fact the messianic community. The kingdom has come, and that is seen in the way the will of God is done by Jesus’ followers. They were of one heart and soul; no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common; and there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold to be distributed to those who had need. And all this was done through the great grace and the great power of the Spirit. Jesus came to bring the kingdom, and the kingdom is present in those who share hearts, souls and wealth.

Luke is drawing on both Jewish and Greek sources in his description of the community. In Deuteronomy the people of Israel are told: ‘There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you … if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today.’ If no one is needy in the fledgling Christian community it must be because they are obeying God’s commands. God is blessing them. No one can doubt that Jesus was the messiah, Luke implies, when his followers are so obviously blessed by God.

Even more interestingly, is the way that Luke draws on Greek understandings of friendship in this description. A well-known Greek proverb said ‘all things in common between friends’ (although I have to add that when Plato quoted this proverb in The Republic he included wives and children as among the things that men should hold in common). When the early Christian community held all things in common, they were acting according to the highest ideals of Greek friendship. Similarly, the description of the community as having one heart and soul draws on another Greek proverb, that ‘friends are one soul’. What is stunning about what Luke is doing here isn’t merely that he’s using a Greek ideal of friendship to describe the Christian community, but that he’s expanding the people who can be considered friends from adult male citizens to include women and slaves and children.

In the description Luke gives us, we can see that the church is called to be a community of true friends, those who hold all things in common and who share one heart and soul. In the Farewell Discourse Jesus told his disciples: ‘I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.’ And he describes ultimate love by saying: ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ There are advantages to thinking of the church as a community of friends, rather than as a family; friendship is a relationship of equality and relationships within families aren’t necessarily equal. Today husbands no longer have authority over wives, but parents do over young children, and frequently adult children have authority over elderly parents. An ideal of family can leave the single and the widowed, the orphaned and the childless, on the outside. There are no outsiders in the community of friends that Luke describes.

To imitate Luke and summarise: Luke probably was exaggerating when he described the unity of the early church, in order to make the point that here was the messianic community. That’s no reason, however, to ignore his description of that community as irrelevant to the church today; we too are called to follow Jesus by living out the values of the kingdom. The description of the early church as: ‘of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common’ is aspirational, but that doesn’t mean it’s not to be taken seriously. We are to seek to live as a community of friends, in which no one is needy, for everything is shared with those who have need. Good on Archbishop Freier for suggesting that all of Australia should consider a similar sharing of wealth. But calls like his will only be taken seriously if the church provides broader society with an example to follow.


April 15, 2012 - Posted by | Life, etc. | , , ,

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