Reading: Acts 2:32-37
One thing that strikes me, and many people who read the first chapters of Acts is the strength of the community. The few verses that we read today speaks of how they were generous to each other to the point that they held everything in common and nobody had any need. I think it is safe to say that none of us have experienced the Acts 2 church; I would even go so far as to say that few of us truly want to experience the Acts 2 church — and, to be fair, there are a number of things that happened in the primitive church that shows that they were not quite perfect. This community that made sure that nobody was destitute stands in remarkable contrast to the society we live in today — we are generous, but, very few are as sacrificially generous as what is described as normative in these passages.
If we jump forward from the first to the 2nd century, we see that this is still, to a degree, a mark of the Christian community. Justin Martyr writes in his Epistle to Diognetes:
[Christians] dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death and restored to life. They are poor yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things and yet abound in all; they are dishonored and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of and yet are justified; they are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good yet are punished as evildoers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum it all up in one word — what the soul is to the body, that are Christians in the world.
And a few decades, at the end of the 2rd Tertullian wrote in his Apology that when the pagans speak of Christians, one of the things that the pagans say about us is: “see how they love each other.” Now, I don’t have to look far to see what people outside the church have to say about Christianity — one can find out by either seeking out what people say online, or by searching the library. While I don’t recommend this exercise, I can tell you that “see how they love each other” is not the dominant theme.
Now, the Early church was a human institution. One of the themes in Acts is power struggles and racism in the early church. The epistles, among other things, address individual pettiness, power struggles, racism, classism, greed, ageism, and other examples of petty infighting. All the problems we have now, the Early Church had as well; but, we seem to have grown apart — something kept the church together, in spite of all these problems.
Not that long ago, I had a brief conversation with a minister who publicly denounced on the internet. I’ve had a number of friends in various positions who have been publicly attacked like that; and there have been moments that I, or members of my family have felt a bit targeted. The way that too many Christians fight and curse each other in a public forum cannot possibly make people say of us: “Oh how they love one another.”
Of course, when I am nostalgic for days before pastors fighting with each other on social media; when I am honest with myself, I realize that nostalgia lies. Those days in the 1990’s that I look back to were not so much better as they were less transparent — and I was not in a position where I saw what was happening. When I read old books, I find that those days were not really better either. A number of the old books in my collection are polemic books; that is a book that is intended to attack the reputation of a person or a group. People have behaved badly for centuries — from when Acts was written until now, I can see shamefully bad behavior that is not worthy of a community that calls itself Christian.
When I studied Church history, I learned about the character assassination and in some cases actual assassination attempts against bishops in the 4th century. I learned about a bishop punching a priest in a world-wide business meeting. If I look for that golden age where the community is perfect, it appears that it did not last very long — nostalgia lies, and even if there were a golden age, we cannot live in the past.
I believe that we already know what one of the biggest differences is between the primitive church and the church of the time after the printing press was invented and Christians authors wrote polemic works where they slandered other Christians — that difference is that the Early Church faced real persecution. Those who followed Jesus faced real danger; yet they followed the gospel because in it they heard words of life.
These days, the church, at least in the western world, has power. The Church has been a powerful voice that governments and societies hear since the fourth century. The influence of the church on even our secular culture is so large that it is at times difficult for us to separate what is secular from what is sacred. Like it or now, when the church was persecuted, it was aloof of the politics of the world, now the church is part of the politics of the world.
Once the Church had the ear of the Emperor, and then the ear of kings, and now the ear of presidents and legislators. When you have political power in the world, it is very tempting to use the political tactics of the world. Some of the worst chapters of Church history are when people who held power in the world sought to gain power in the church and thereby increase their power in the world. Just because the scripture forbids gossip and slander does not mean that Christians don’t engage it it — I’ve seen people’s Facebook pages; it is a problem — our church is accepting the sinful behavior of our society as if it were virtuous.
I will admit, one thing that bothers me is that when I face this problem, it seems beyond my ability to address it. If I confront somebody who habitually slanders others, and seems eager to repeat lies, that person becomes angry, and acts as if I am completely in the wrong. It does not matter how much I see that another person is living in sin, nor how public and obvious the sinful behavior is, it does little good to be deeply convicted of another person’s sin.
What I know is that if being convicted of other people’s sin is not helpful, I can guard myself from doing the same thing that I see modeled. I can look at what I publicly saying, and ask if I am speaking appropriate to and about those who are created in God’s image. I can work on my faith — because the thing that seems to inspire people to share lies is that they are afraid; if I forget that God is bigger than the bogeyman (to quote a veggie tail’s song), then I might be afraid of every thing that I imagine having the strength to harm me. We fall into sin, because we lose faith and fall into fear. We repeat the lies, because the lies scare us; we forget that even if it were true, God is bigger than that.
Another problem is that because Christians have gained so much power, we think that we need power. We think we need access to the government. We think we need to influence every facet of society in a direct and powerful way. We forget that Christians were salt and light even when all the power of the government fought to crush Christianity. We seek this control, because we forget that Jesus is Lord. We fall into sin, because we lose faith.
What I recommend is that we all listen to ourselves — see if we are falling into fear, or seeking power. See if we are respecting that those around us are created in God’s image. If you use social media — look at your last 10 posts — see how many of them are meant to paint another person or a group of people in a bad light. It is very easy to sin the way lots of other people sin; even when you are aware of it. It does not help me to be convicted of another person’s sin, but knowing which sins are common can help me watch myself. Friends have long practiced using Queries to check areas where it is easy to fall into sinful behavior, and one Query that I’ve seen in almost every collection, dating back to at least 1806 is as follows:
“ Is love and unity maintained amongst you. Are tale-bearing and detraction discouraged. And where any differences arise, are endeavours used speedily to end them?”
While the sinful behavior is common to the point it is endemic, and it is deeply destructive to our communities — there is good news. Remember, we believe in forgiveness. Jesus taught us to forgive. We believe that Christ walks with us and helps us to change — even when we sometimes do those things we don’t want to do — Christ still strives with us, works to help us grow into the name Christian. The Good News states we are salt and light. When we get better, our communities get better too. The good news is we want to do better with God’s help — and God is eager to help.