Glad and Generous Hearts
These lovely words that we’ve just heard from the Book of Acts are about a community that is on fire – they are passionate, they are glowing, they are unstoppable. They are, together, like a person in the throes of a great new love: they are, in every moment, their best selves. Their sense of personal ethics they now proudly proclaim and go to new lengths to live out. They are starry-eyed; they are devoted to noticing the welfare of others, to selflessness and a giving spirit. Their beloved is not simply another person, but in their burst of faith it is their fellow worshipers, their neighbors, their city, and the world. They are captivated by a passion that is so much deeper than mind or heart. It is an all-consuming passion of spirit; they understand themselves to be changed to their core. Together they are part of a blazingly new thing, a universe-altering thing, and they believe themselves to be blessed beyond all human understanding just to be part of this project – just to have been in God’s field of vision and then chosen.
This project, of course, is God and Christ’s project of the redemption of all the world. Our text from Acts takes place immediately after Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit like tongues of flame as the first apostles suddenly know how to speak all the languages of their known world. That has just happened in Acts, although we in the churches today will celebrate Pentecost in four weeks, fifty days following Easter. Let’s imagine each of the experiences that are feeding these Jerusalem apostles – the devastation of Christ’s execution, the wonder of the mounting stories of his resurrection appearances – the grave is not the end! The growing belief in the apostles that the universe is a new place and that all the world needs to know that; their new relationship with those around them – no longer acquaintances but sisters and brothers, sharers of the Good News and fellow journeyers on “the Way.” (Before Christ’s followers organized into anything they or we call the “the Church” they knew themselves to be followers of “the Way.”) These apostles are all Jews of Jerusalem, and they now believe that the Messiah of their long, long awaiting was truly this teacher from Galilee, Jesus – no military leader, no new king to vanquish the occupiers from Rome and restore Judah to power and might. The Messiah has come; he brings peace and righteousness; he is victor not over the powers of the world but over the power of death itself. The universe is a different place not because their lives are now perfect but because The Way is now spread before them. Isn’t that so for each of us? Our faith does not mean that all will now be well, or that we win whichever of life’s contests we think are important, but that the way is stretched before us, and it is our choice to put one foot in front of the other to follow it. The Way doesn’t lead to success but to faithfulness. There are no guarantees about the material quality of our lives. We are promised not that the journey will be easy but that it will be worth it. We walk The Way anyway. To many it looks ridiculous – why not put all our energies into earning the material things that make most people happy? Why not pursue those things that are globally understood to compromise success? Why not be admired? Comfortable? Respected? Happy?
The first apostles are in a flush of passion about what it means to reorient their lives, to believe in life beyond life, to have different priorities, and to relate very differently to their neighbors. They were countercultural then and they are today! They are, individually, people of faith, but they are particularly empowered by and shaped in that faith because they have created such an amazing community. They aren’t lone wolves out there, they have constructed a glorious, caring, loving, serving community. They aren’t walking The Way alone but rather arm-in-arm. They are learning from one another in every moment what it means to be faithful. They are encouraging one another – that is, they are giving each other courage. When they see the model of faith inhabited by a brother or sister they gain the courage to live out their faith at that level, or more so. They are teaching one another, empowering one another, challenging one another. They are loving one another. How often has the human community found, both in good things and bad, that we are emboldened to love more, or hate more, depending on what those around us are doing, those with whom we identify. Not only are the apostles on fire with love for Jesus Christ, they are overjoyed with what it means to follow Christ’s Way together.
They do many things together, but the source of all of their energy comes from what they do as primary practices of faith. Our passage from Acts tells us four things about this. First, they engage in preaching and teaching together. In these weeks and months following the resurrection there is no collection of texts called the Bible to which to refer – these sisters and brothers get together to retell the teachings of Christ and to expound upon their meaning. Second, they have spiritual fellowship with one another – they nurture one another in faith, they are a family of followers together. Third, they engage in religious ritual together – our text tells us that they break bread together, as we will later in this service. They don’t have lunch together, they remember Christ in the formal sharing of grape and grain. And lastly, we learn that they pray together - they gather to collect their petitions, to lift them up to God, to learn of each other’s needs and those of their world and to name them before the Almighty. As a group they experience tremendous community and awe-inspiring growth, but it all comes out of these foundational faith practices.
Out of this the apostles produce signs and wonders, and are so convicted that they actually pool their possessions and give them away to those in need. You heard me right – they give up all sense of ownership of material goods and agree together on how to dispose of their shared assets in a way that benefits the needy. And get this – they do it all “with glad and generous hearts, praising God!” Wow! This is no dreaded obligation but a joy and a privilege! They have glad and generous hearts as they give everything away! Then and now, that is countercultural.
Innumerable Christians have followed their example, though. The great scientist Blaise Pascal was also a committed Christian. When he died at the, to us, terribly young age of 39, his funeral was packed up front with his professional admirers, and from the back with the many, many poor people whom he had individually helped to eat, to survive, to live indoors. Pascal had a glad and generous heart.
John Wesley, I have read, earned the equivalent of what would be $300,000 a year in today’s money, and he gave away 98% of that. He once preached on the subject of money, “It is an excellent gift of God, answering the noblest ends. In the hands of [God’s] children, it is food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, raiment for the naked: It gives to the traveller and the stranger where to lay his head. By it we may supply the place of an husband to the widow, and of a father to the fatherless. We maybe a defense for the oppressed, a means of health to the sick, of ease to them that are in pain; it may be as eyes to the blind, as feet to the lame; yea, a lifter up from the gates of death! It is therefore of the highest concern that all who fear God know how to employ this valuable talent; that they be instructed how it may answer these glorious ends, and in the highest degree.” Wesley later said, “If I leave behind me ten pounds… you and mankind [can] bear witness against me, that I have lived and died a thief and a robber.”
And of course, it is not only the saints of old who have committed themselves to the Christian practice of radical sharing, it is observed by countless people among us. The story of one came to light recently – an elderly woman who died in the American south, never married, of humble employment. She lived frugally, and never attracted much notice. But when she died, it was revealed that her estate of over one million dollars was left to a nearby school. One needn’t be rich or a noted saint to give away one’s earnings and make a difference, with a glad and generous heart.
Our text from Acts tells us that the glad generosity of the apostles meant that many, many persons were attracted to becoming committed followers of “the Way.” How about that – a bunch of people were giving away their cherished resources to those in need and therefore people wanted to join them?! The quality of their community must have been extraordinary – it must have been filled with love. Human beings do not naturally seek to be part of communities that teach them to give away their resources, their status, their inheritance, their hard-earned paycheck. The faith and the zeal of the apostles must have been infectious.
I’m reminded of the saying, coined hundreds of years ago, “Preach the Gospel at all times; use words if necessary.” In their temple, these followers of the Way taught each other about the gospel. In public they lived it – no words, just actions. It is the smallest moments of our lives that truly teach other people what it means to be Christian. We can preach all we want, but we have to live the Good News. Desmond Tutu has testified any number of times to an experience he had as a boy in Apartheid South Africa, when he and his mother were walking down a street in Cape Town. A white man came towards them on the sidewalk, and not only did the white man not require Tutu and his mother to step off the sidewalk to let him pass, the man tipped his hat to Tutu’s mother. Later the young Desmond asked her who that could possibly be; he had never experienced such an interaction. She told her son that the man was named Trevor Huddleston, and that he served as an Anglican priest. Young Desmond then decided that he too would one day be an Anglican priest. “Preach the Gospel at all times; use words if necessary.”
This is what we are to do in order to, as the Psalmist wrote, “walk in our integrity.” With glad and generous hearts, rooted in the Good News of Christ’s resurrection, we build loving community amongst the followers of Christ’s way, and with glad and generous hearts we give all our trophies away so that others may have life. What a simple vocation. What a challenging vocation. And what a holy privilege to be called by Christ to join him on the Way.